These are curious times for Anthony Gonzalez and M83. Having gone from cult favourite to Grammy-nominated superstar thanks to ubiquitous surprise hit ‘Midnight City’ (still brilliant, still plain weird to hear it accompany the opening titles to Made in Chelsea), Gonzalez found himself in high demand and when the opportunity to provide the soundtrack to the new Tom Cruise blockbuster came knocking, he did what any of us would do – he dived in head first, saving important questions for later.
If you sought a general consensus of the Daft Punk-scored Tron: Legacy (and what an odd task that would be), you’d probably end up with “looked pretty, sounded great”. With Oblivion, director Joseph Kosinski has largely repeated that trick, crafting a functional sci-fi flick that appears gorgeous and occasionally soars (even if does pay tribute to/rip off about 25 different films) and, crucially, boasts music from a French producer who specialises in sky-scraping electronica. With the M83 name attracting its most mainstream attention to date; this seemed a can’t-miss prospect for everyone involved. Sadly, Gonzalez soon found himself constrained by Hollywood, his style dismissed as “too indie” and an artist who excels at building and bursting through barriers wound up boxed in.
The result is a slick, professional affair that does what it should rather than what it could. Bombastic boxes are ticked with orchestral precision as studio notes and deadlines are met – ‘Waking Up’ is dynamic if derivative and the frantic drum battle of ‘Radiation Zone’ is exciting but loses something without the accompanying onscreen chase sequence. If it feels obvious to state that a soundtrack loses power in isolation, then consider recent work from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Both were afforded a liberal amount of creative freedom and thus turned out two excellent soundtracks that also worked as standalone pieces. Daft Punk no doubt faced demands, but they were allowed to be Daft Punk. Gonzalez has stated that he would prefer Oblivion be released under his name alongside colleague Joseph Trapanese, but no such luck.
It’s a shame because while Oblivion has plenty of rousing highlights, it’s mostly homogenous, too often aping the work of others – the midway point of ‘You Can’t Save Her’ could almost prompt a legal writ from the offices of one H. Zimmer, were he bothered – to exist as its own unique thing. At times, Gonzalez nails the compromise, such as the magnificent contained crescendo of the Vangelis-esque ‘Starwaves’, but these moments are few and far between. The title track, easily the most ‘M83 moment’ of the record, is a delight. Picking up the rising strands and huge percussion from ‘I’m Sending You Away’ and adding heart-stopping vocals from Susanne Sundfør proves a masterstroke and the closest Gonzalez comes to smashing through the glass ceiling.
Gonzalez has noted, a touch defeated, that he believes M83 fans will hate this album. That seems extreme, though it will likely provide an awkward asterisk in the back catalogue when all is said and done. New converts will probably just wonder where the saxophones are.