Before The Dawn Heals Us
83’s third album is a high-velocity night time train ride through a miasmic blur of French cities and countryside, pursued by something you can barely see, encased in flames and given to fits of high-drama. Which is to say that it’s an overwrought-to-the-point-of-hysterical, cinematic headtrip of a record, in danger of losing control, toppling off the rails and being accused of sonic and emotional overload.
Stripped back from duo to just Anthony Gonzalez, Before The Dawn Heals Us was recorded over the summer of 2004, this time utilising more live instruments (essentially real guitars and actual drums) rather than generating almost everything from a synthesizer. But don’t worry, because the aesthetic here is broadly the same as on M83’s second album, 2003’s breakthrough Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts—essentially MBV meets Jean-Michel Jarre. Guitars are heavily treated so they sound like synths, and synths play heavy powerchords so they sound like guitars, but the dynamics now are more consistently high-tempo, the mood paranoid-excitable rather than blissed-out reverie.
From the get-go, “Moonchild” is strained and dramatic, distant pianos and toms gently stroked by an unidentified female voice uttering something for a few seconds before a mammoth surge of sound threatens to engulf the listener as it moves upwards at a tremulously slow pace, drum fills placed deliberately to heighten the drama rather than to move the song anywhere in particular, angelic voices propelling the ascent. It closes with the woman’s voice again, somewhere between profundity and a b-movie script—“my first vision… I realised I was in love with the voice… I called it again and again but all I heard was the echo in the light…” Next up is the album’s standout track, “Don’t Save Us From The Flames,” even more overpowering and hysterical than the preceding song, its simplistic structure echoing that of the album as a whole—quietude in the verse followed by hammering intensity in the chorus, shifting in remembrance or sympathy of bi-polar disorder. It streams by in a blur for the accelerated, wordless chorus, like a bullet-train escaping the urban sprawl. If anything, “*” is even more frazzled.
“In The Cold I’m Standing” is a hush of industrial vents and washed-out keys, targeted to alleviate the headrush, and “Farewell / Goodbye” is an unexpected and tender vocal duet that couldn’t be more Gallic if it tried, the simple rise-and-fall melody redolent of strange and impossibly melancholic low-budget French television programmes that you might catch being broadcast at 1 AM on a forgotten channel as a drunken teenager. By contrast “Fields, Shorelines & Hunters” is two and a half minutes of relentless 4/4 stomp&scree which very nearly boils over into total sonic chaos, whilst “Let Men Burn Stars” is a welcome respite composed of rolling pianos and heavenly voices. “Car Chase Terror” is burdened with yet more anonymous b-movie women, paranoid and pursued, but bludgeons rather than actually terrifies the listener.
Before The Dawn Heals Us is a very twilight album, a very urban record. It never quite achieves the variegated subtlety of Dead Cities…, but it doesn’t reach for the same frosty rural pastures as that record either. Over an hour the constant, deliberately jolting shifts in pace can become too much, but as the 10-minute spectre-choir of “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun” (either the best or worst song title ever, depending on your mood) slowly fades into nothing, it all seems worth it.