From a whole other area of music, France’s Anthony Gonzalez had similar problems with the last M83 album, Before the Dawn Heals Us. An exciting listen at the outset, that set of songs was essentially a zero-sum game in the long run: On one side, a bracing Superpitcher remix of “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” pushed minimal techno to a convergence with shoegazed tones at precisely the right moment in time; on the other, the laughable movie narrative “Car Chase Terror,” which has to be in contention with “God’s Will,” Martina McBride’s tearful Christian country ode to a crippled kid on Halloween, as the most embarrassing song released this decade. Both are visionary works in diametric opposition to one another, to where it’s impossible to understand how the source materials could have come out of the same artist.
Regardless, Gonzalez applies the same sort of heavy-handed emotion to Digital Shades, Vol. 1, a stopgap release of moody, darkened ambient works recently released direct-to-download. Gonzalez’s skill within his domain – heretofore as a pleasing and sometimes visionary hash of drone, rhythm and fashionable guitar – is heralded by fans and derided as two-dimensional car commercial soundtracks by his detractors. They’re both right, and that brings up the most maddening aspect of M83’s music. There is simply no filter on his work, so as a fan, you can just take it all as is, or otherwise, you ignore him.
At its most subdued, the album benefits from Gonzalez’s great ear (openers “Waves Waves Waves” and “Coloring the Void” support, not unfairly, the Eno reference in the press materials), but like clockwork, his fist comes down on “Dancing Mountains,” obliterating the gentle push with hand-wringing melancholia. The rest trades off between great ideas and less-great, often in the same song, and within that baggage, both of these fatalistic records find their most noteworthy faults. Much like how you can’t willingly uncook food or remove a tattoo, the black dye doesn’t come out until you cut off the hair and, on your own power, deliver yourself from the man-made starkness of that corner.