M83 tosses out a pile of ‘Junk’
Jimmy Kemper | Monday, April 18, 2016
Nostalgia is a powerful tool, but only when held in the right hands. It can give us beautiful statements that recreate and revitalize the soundscapes of an era, the way Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” did, or, if mismanaged, can give us an utter mess of dad jokes, poorly timed laugh tracks and ingratiating, irritating references, the way “Fuller House” did.
Anthony Gonzalez, the man behind M83, knows a thing or two about nostalgia, having harnessed the power of an ’80s neon dreamscape to create some of the best indie-pop albums of the past decade, including 2011’s opus “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” and the ubiquitous, world-conquering single from that album, “Midnight City.”
Since the commercial success of “Hurry Up” and the worldwide domination of “Midnight City,” Gonzalez has leveraged his newly-found mainstream attention and financial security to explore a number of side projects for M83, including scoring the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller “Oblivion” and his brother’s French erotic drama “You and the Night.” But neither of these compositions matched the sentimental overhaul and thematic ambition that “Hurry Up” pursued.
M83’s latest studio album, “Junk,” is, at least on the surface, a return to the ’80s nostalgia that encompassed “Hurry Up” and their prior studio efforts. But that’s about where the similarities end. Last month, in a discussion with Pitchfork, Gonzalez decried the attitude of the legions of M83 “fans” that gravitated around “Midnight City,” saying, “This is how people listen to music nowadays. They’re just gonna pick certain songs they like – one, two, if you’re lucky – and trash the rest. All else becomes junk.”
Anthony Gonzalez, frustrated with this consumerist attitude, has given us what he considers to be M83’s most personal record. But it’s personal in the way that a garage sale is, uncovering bits and pieces of a former life that may or may not be, well, junk. Because of this, we’ve been given a hodgepodge of songs centered around the late ’70s and early ’80s that don’t add up to a complete, well-constructed thought the way “Hurry Up” did.
Like most garage sales, there are quite a few treasures in this album. Take for instance, album opener and first single “Do It, Try It.” This track seemingly comes out of left field given M83’s prior efforts, kicking off with a bouncing, ragtime piano before ripping into a more familiar, pounding synth jam that evokes the feelings of decades gone by. This hard grip on nostalgia continues with “Go!,” arguably the best song on the album. Here, M83 lures us in with a swirling sax piece that could’ve come off “Born to Run,” 16-bit video game samples and the sultry vocals of French talent Mai Lan before climaxing with an explosive, face-melting guitar solo by Steve Vai that would make Van Halen jealous. Finally, there’s “Solitude,” one of the few tracks on this album that actually features Gonzalez’s vocals, surrounding them in layers of beautiful violins before ultimately crescendoing in a magnificent keytar solo. These songs are the real treasures of the album, a perfectly-curated collection of the knickknacks and gizmos that made up this long-gone era, showing us what’s worth loving and remember.
But also like most garage sales, those treasures are quickly snatched up by the early risers, leaving the rest of us with useless trash. In the case of “Junk,” that trash constitutes the majority of the second half of the album. Here, we get some just plain unnecessary instrumental tracks, such as “The Wizard,” “Tension” and “Ludivine,” that make the album feel like an overstuffed experiment in testing the limits of our nostalgia before segueing into the tragically dull, Beck-laden “Time Wind,” which confirms this album dug too deep into nostalgia. That’s not to say the entire second half is unredeemable. Album closer “Sunday Night 1987” has the definitively best harmonica solo of 2016.
Despite these missteps, “Junk” is an above-average album, if only for its ability to transform so many discarded elements into something truly genuine and heartfelt. The problem with this is that the authentic emotions that comprise this album are reactionary, and that M83’s reaction to worldwide success wasn’t fully fleshed out throughout “Junk.”
Best Tracks: “Do It, Try It,” “Go!,” “Solitude”
If You Like: HAIM, Tame Impala, Radiohead