Review: M83's Junk

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ANTHONY GONZALEZ has always trafficked in dreams. As the driving creative force behind M83, Gonzalez’s sprawling, outsized shoegaze and synth-indebted pop plays like the sweeping soundtrack to nonexistent motion pictures. 2008’s Saturdays = Youth chronicled a great, lost John Hughes movie, giving hormonal longing, prom queens, and highway joyrides life-or-death consequences. Even bigger and bolder was 2011’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, an outlandish, grandiose double-album in all the best ways, taking listeners on a spacey, new wave journey with genuine, heart-pounding anthems like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen”. With all of Hurry Up’s critical and musical success, it was hard to imagine how Gonzalez could dream any bigger.

Well, Gonzalez has seemingly chosen instead to dream stranger. It’s taken him a half decade to come up with the baffling yet strangely endearing Junk. Sure, Gonzalez took some time to score some real movies in that interval, but all the while, fans have wondered what his latest proper studio album would sound like. With no more mountains to climb, Gonzalez has decided to tackle entirely new terrain altogether—making the hideously uncool sounds of yesteryear into forward-thinking, 2010s pop.

The album’s title comes across almost as a repudiation of everything that came before—out with “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea” and “We Own the Sky”, in with “Bibi the Dog” and “Laser Gun”. Gonzalez has publicly discussed Junk’s emergence from a newfound sense of nihilism, a disillusioned discovery that most casual listeners will simply save one or two songs and discard the rest of the album. Junk plays like a direct challenge to that philosophy—if you think most of an album’s contents are junk, then here’s an album mostly of junk—long-discarded musical flourishes, corny instrumentation, nonsense lyrics. And yet, strangely enough, the album ends up pretty darn good in spite of its hackneyed self-awareness.

The key musical cue on M83’s last two efforts was the sound of the 1980s—pulsating beats, garish synths, shimmering vocals. Junk, on the other hand, stretches the time-space continuum by taking Gonzalez back one decade further to the syrupy piano ballads and blue-eyed soul of the 1970s. It’s a style long considered tacky—but much like last year’s Tame Impala effort Currents, the record finds a way to invigorate the styles your dad probably listened to in his shag-carpeted van. “For the Kids”,  a gorgeous ballad with lovely vocals from Gonzales muse Suzanne Sundfør, could have been sung in another life by Barry Manilow, all languorous piano notes and after-hours saxophone. Yet, it works, as do the equally beautiful French-horn aided “Atlantique Sud” and stately, harmonica-fueled closer “Saturday Night 1987”. In fact, the ballads, not always Gonzalez’s past strength, are among the best material here. Second single “Solitude” sounds like what Gonzalez would have done with a commission for a Roger Moore-aided Bond song, somehow making a keytar sound badass. That’s no small feat.

French cohorts Daft Punk’s 2013 comeback effort Random Access Memories seems to be major touchstone for Junk, particularly the former record’s Paul Williams-penned disco paean “Touch”. There’s some big, garish disco anthems on this record, including opener “Do It, Try It”, which smashes together vaudeville piano and the thundering synth-bed crescendo of Gonzalez’s past efforts. The album’s best track “Go!”, welcomed by a clarion call echo of “Midnight City” saxophone, propels itself into an exhilarating, nonsensical sing-along that would make for a great regular set closer. “Bibi the Dog”, with its plain-spoken lyrics, plays like the similarly animal-themed sequel to “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”. The line-up of the band isn’t quite as you remember, as long-time collaborator Morgan Kibby has been replaced with new vocalist Mai Lan. She admirably turns in a number of pretty performances, most notably on “Atlantique Sud”. Beck also pops up for late-album highlight “Time Wind”, a glittering neon, new wave jam that would have sounded right at home on Miami Vice.

Not all of it sticks. “Moon Crystal”, which Gonzalez claims was inspired by Punky Brewster, sounds exactly as one would expect based on that description—a cheesy, TGIF TV theme song. Some of Gonzalez’s attempts at wall-of-sound songwriting cross over from catchy to irritating, as on the grating one-two punch of “Laser Gun” and “Road Blaster”. Perhaps the most difficult thing about Junk, though, is coming to grips with M83 purely as a band, rather than an experience. Junk doesn’t profess to be some magnificent statement about the human condition—it ends any such speculation with its title. Gonzalez’s last two efforts were cosmic, life-changing experiences—his latest is simply a collection of songs, nothing more, with unifying themes of lost love, nostalgia, and wizards (I think). There’s some of that old, epic instrumental magic hidden in there—see the over-too-soon interlude “The Wizard”, but there’s something decidedly unassuming about Junk in a manner that Gonzalez has not attempted since his band’s early-Aughts inception. And that’s ok. Muppets In Space album cover aside, Gonzalez has still left plenty on Junk for his merry usual band of misfits—the lovers, the dreamers, and him. B PLUS