Reviews of M83’s music feature three main through lines: overpowering emotion, nostalgia and disjointedness. It’s not like the three are unrelated. French-born Anthony Gonzalez (the only consistent member of M83) is obsessed with childhood, which tends to unleash an uncontainable and sometimes jumbled pack of feelings. But this never seemed sloppier than on 2016’s Junk, M83’s most recent LP, where it seemed that Gonzalez was striving for sentiment but ending up at goofy puppets instead. Even for the diehard fans, M83 seemed to have lost its magic touch.

And so along comes DSVII, M83’s hangdog response to Junk’s critical and commercial failure. Gonzalez has described the album as a playful, no-stakes return to his deepest fascinations, which—surprise, surprise—spring from his youth: video games, old movies, ambient music. It’s also a sequel to 2007’s Digital Shades, Vol. 1, but where that album consisted of reworked B-sides and demos, M83’s latest is all new material and intended to be all of a piece. Its 15 instrumental tracks do provide a pinch of mythical fun, but the album is too restless to convincingly evoke the starry-eyed longing of the band’s best work.

The LP’s highlights happen early on. Opener “Hell Riders” begins at a synth-y whisper that gradually increases in volume and morphs very subtly for about two minutes. Then, a flamenco guitar sound enters the mix, along with some gloriously artificial choral voices that pulsate like sea grass. The game’s afoot! The piece really does seem like an invitation to a quest of some kind, the perfect introduction to an immersive virtual world. Even the shift at around five minutes in, when the flamenco morsels momentarily drop out and an Ecco the Dolphin-like frequency eventually catapults listeners back to earlier motifs, seems appropriate to some video game’s opening screen—just press start to begin.

“Colonies” is DSVII’s other really mesmerizing song, only four tracks in. It patiently hovers in a place similar to where “Hell Riders” originates but with an extra flash of distortion and echo. The song is a cyclone of static that earnestly yawns its way from one alien canyon to another. (“Il est temps de dormir, Anthony!”) If Brian Eno has his fingerprints anywhere on the album, it’s here, in delirious geographical meditation.

The rest of the LP isn’t terrible, but it struggles to locate a singular vision. You can tell this, in part, from the hodgepodge assortment of song titles (“Meet the Friends”? “Lunar Son”? “Taifun Glory”?), but even within a given song, Gonzalez simply isn’t willing to explore one idea at a time. “Jeux D’enfants” is pretty enough and gives piano center stage as a break from all the electro-tectonics, but the pacing is pretty damn quick and ends up skipping past moments that could actually stay for dessert and feel much more effectively moody. “Oh Yes You’re There, Everyday” also begins with piano, but some Vangelis synths and coolly resonating bass enter stage left, and, before you know it, we end up with an instrument soup whose notes of Kate Bush are barely noticeable.

All of this makes for a frustrating video game soundtrack (each world features too much variation to establish alluring, distinctive atmospheres), inattentive ambient music (its textures fluctuate too often) and half-hearted pop music (there are little bits of catchy melodies everywhere), which is what DSVII veers towards even though pop is what M83 supposedly swore off this time around. On top of all this, three of these tracks (“Temple of Sorrow,” “Lune De Fiel” and “Feelings”) and pieces of others score an expectedly gooey set of visuals from French firebrand Bertrand Mandico, who supposedly took inspiration from this album’s sounds. Mandico is a wonderful filmmaker (look no further than The Wild Boys), but Gonzalez’s tunes merely distract from the videos’ fascinating Guy Maddin-David Cronenberg-Ed Wood theatrics.

The good news is that DSVII is supposed to be little more than a palate cleanser before Gonzalez gets to work on M83’s real follow-up to Junk. Here, he’s made music sorbet from all kinds of clashing detritus, but if this is the kids-in-the-kitchen experiment he needed before creating ambitious, symphonic pop music again, then so be it. With so many different ideas in the mix that could work quite well on their own, this record might very well end up the inspirational prequel to something truly epic.

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