Tuesday, September 15, 2009

#107. 'We kill what we build'

M83 "We Own the Sky"

I had a really tough time deciding which M83 single I would include here. I think I had "Don't Save Us from the Flames" in mind at first, but going through the rest of thier singles did a lot more to complicate the issue. For an act who's identity seemed to change radically with each new album, from the shoegaze-indebted electronic of Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts to the 80s pastiche of Saturdays = Youth, it's kind of amazing how consistently strong their singles are. If I removed my one-per-artist rule I wouldn't be surprised if I found room for at least "Don't Save Us from the Flames" and "Run into Flowers" in addition to what I found to be the single of theirs that got under my skin the most, "We Own the Sky."

It probably stems from my general appreciation of the more haunting songs on Saturdays = Youth over the more overtly electro-pop ones. I get why "Kim and Jessie" was the standout for most people, it's an instantly appealing and earwormy bit of 80s worshiping electronic/pop, but it and its ilk were nothing compared to likes of "She Is Haunting Me" (if it had been a single you'd be seeing it way up the list and I'd be talking about something else today) or the gorgeous quasi-intro track "You Appearing". Both sides of the album were great, don't get me wrong, but there was a depth of sound to the darker moments that couldn't be matched by the fluffier but still great sounding pop stuff.

The thing of it is that "We Own the Sky" makes for the most interesting listen of any single M83 released. It's the least immediate for sure, probably the one I liked least on first listen truth be told, but the more I heard it the better it sounded. The warm, pulsating synths that provided the backbone of the track initially seemed far too complacent, especially for a single, but the overall feel they give the track is an odd mix of comforting and unsettling. As the song progresses Anthony Gonzales layers on more and more warm pads, but they never quell the underlying off-ness of the track. It should be a triumphant song, but something in the mix undercuts that sentiment and I can't quite figure out what it is. Is it the persistent bass rumble? The intervals between the notes of the main synth riff? Something in the tones themselves that gives them slight but not inherently noticeable dissonance? It keeps me coming back to the song because every time I think I have it pinned down to one specific thing it slips from my grasp and I'm back at square one. It fascinates me the way the song continually does that.

Even if the unsettling nature of the track stems wholly from the instrumental, I think what does the most to undercut the triumphant tone is the vocals. I don't know if it's Gonzales himself on the vocals here, but whoever it is makes each word sound like it's coming through an odd kind of haze. The vowels get drawn out to infinity, the voice is at the top of its register and straining to go beyond it, the vocal track is never quite at the front of the mix but it's prominent enough to be a focal point and the overall effect stops just shy of being outright haunting. The way the vocals are used in the mix is reminiscent of shoegaze, almost ephemeral but essential to the overall feel of the track. The words aren't important, as usual you might say, but the way that last section is underpinned by the obscured chant of 'It's coming! It's coming now!' is about as great a vocal moment as you'll find in any genre. It boils down to Gonzales knowing where to place things in the mix for maximum effect, which is about the only common trait between all the M83 albums if you think about it, and for my money it's never demonstrated better than here.

Coming up tomorrow: A small victory for the state of modern rock radio.

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