On one very memorable night in the fall of 2001, I listened to new albums by two groups, both of whom were inner-circle heroes of mine. Both were releasing their first albums in years, and I listened to them back-to-back on the same night. On paper, that Orbital vs Spiritualized battle looked even, but it turned out to be a huge mismatch. "Let It Come Down" turned out to be the masterpiece we all know and love, while "The Altogether" was easily the weakest album of Orbital's career, even bordering on embarrassing in spots as they went way overboard on the goofy samples and rave throwbacks. That evening's verdict turned out to be oddly prophetic for me because it symbolized the shift that my listening tastes would take from the 90's to the 00's. Melodic techno was out, and, um, wall of sound emo was in (Godspeed, Hollowphonic, Sigur Ros, and I'd even lump Eluvium in this category).
Seven years later, we have a worthy sequel. In some sense, the Spiritualized comeback is already a blowaway success, seeing as Jason Pierce literally cheated death and returned to touring less than two years later. Had it just been any ordinary tour, it already would have been cause for celebration, but this one was simply sensational, completely overhauling the band's typical live set with acoustic reworkings of old songs mixed with high quality new ones. In the other corner stands M83, synth-blasting MBV torchbearers turned overwrought cinematic 80's kitschmeisters, and the creators of possibly my favourite album that didn't rank at #1 on one of my year-end lists ("Before the Dawn Heals Us"). I don't feel secure with bands until they put out at least three brilliant albums in a row -- up until then, anything can be a fluke, any band can crash and burn and destroy my confidence in them. Three is a magic number that secures a godlike status and likely makes me a fan for life and a true believer in virtually everything the band chooses to do from that point forward. So I'm really putting M83 to the test with "Saturdays = Youth". Spiritualized passed that test way back in 1993, after I heard the "Electric Mainline EP". I broke my own "rule" at the time, since they had only released one proper album at the time, but what can I say, Spiritualized were (and are) special.
The initial round of listening took place not in my bedroom, but on the beach on a day that was so windy, it left nothing to do other than watch kite-surfing while listening to my iPod.
"Songs in A&E" is the very first Jason Pierce solo album. Yes, you could say that every SPZ album since "Ladies and Gentlemen ..." was a J Spaceman solo effort, if not every SPZ album, period, and I wouldn't put up much of a counterargument against you. But even though Jason pulled all the strings on those records, the music has plenty of jammy/improv moments that rely on close interplay between actual musicians who trust each other in a live setting. Other than the odd squall of S3-ish feedback, "Songs in A&E" has none of that. Only "Sweet Talk", the epic-sounding opener, connects this record to the larger-than-life symphonic rush of the "Let It Come Down" era. This is Jason the folkie, the outlaw, writing songs in his bedroom for himself. The band is gravy.
The brilliance of the Acoustic Mainline shows made me crave an all-acoustic SPZ album, and the arrangements on that tour (for both the new and old songs) offered far more surprises than anything featured on the proper album. The electic formats don't hurt the new material (for example, Soul on Fire really comes alive in its electric form, piling on sound in a way that the acoustic version can't hope to match) but consider that right now you can go to SPZ's myspace page and hear an acoustic version of "Goodnight/Funeral Home" that kills virtually everything on "Songs in A&E". Listen to that song and ask yourself how essential "Songs in A&E" can possibly be.
"Saturdays = Youth" completes M83's drive toward blueprinted 80's kitsch and distancing themselves almost totally from their synth-y shoegaze beginnings. The album sounds uncannily like something written and produced in the 80's. The attention to detail in that regard is truly something else. Picking up where "A Guitar and a Heart" left off, the last bits of Loverboy have been stripped away, making room for synth-y retrofuturism more in line with what Styx were doing in the early 80's. This turns out about 1000X better than you might expect based on a decontextualized reading of the previous sentence.
The dreamlike "You, Appearing" is not so far removed from the feel of one of the many short interludes on "Before the Dawn Heals Us", but it soon makes way for the almost unbearably good power ballad "Kim and Jessie" (even the song title reads like something that could have only been released during the 80's!). It comes complete with gated drums that would make Mutt Lange cry and want to produce "Hysteria" all over again, an intricate array of sighing synth lines accenting the oft-repeated chorus of "lurking in the shadows" and by the end you get that lump in your throat that comes with the realization that you're only on the second track but you already know you're listening to a great album. Many broken hearts and drive-ins later, the album fades to grey with the eleven minute (if anything, it is far too short) "Midnight Souls Still Remain", whose anodyne moods could have shown up on any Stars of the Lid album without much complaint from that band's fans.
Score a huge victory for M83 with what will surely wind up being one of 2008's best albums.