M83 – ‘Junk’ – Review

17 Apr

M83 were literally years ahead of the curve on their classic album ‘Saturday’s = Youth’. When that dramatic, gated reverb drum break opened ‘Kim and Jessie’, after the spacious dream pop of ‘You Appearing’, it was a mini revelation. Maybe I’m being over-dramatic but that’s how I remember it. I hadn’t heard the kitsch sounds of 1980s Pop repurposed by a credible indie act before. Not so blatantly, lovingly and expertly at least. The song itself remains a joyous, vivid ode to a very particular decade and a very particular feeling about a very particular time of one’s life. In essence, the song encapsulates m83’s manifesto.

For the past two years every man and his dog has been mining the Reagan years; some brilliantly (Taylor Swift, Carlt Rae Jepson, Brandon Flowers, The 1975) but most just because it’s the in thing to do. ‘Junk’ arrives in that context. Anthony Gonzales is no longer the only cat in town. Perhaps because of that, ‘Junk’ is a different type of 80s homage; it’s the weirdest and most singular entry in M83’s flawless discography. Unlike ‘Saturdays = Youth’, the dated sound grabs aren’t sprinkled over more credible fillings (shoegaze or dream pop or electronica), they are the fillings. There is nothing subtle or subversive about it. And irony? Forget about it. Hipsters be warned, every inch of this record bleeds aching sincerity. There is nothing outwardly artful about how these sounds have been used other than in how precisely the sonics and aesthetics of 80s pop have reproduced. It is, that dirty word, unashamedly nostalgic. These are the uncool sounds of Gonzales’ childhood and he’s utilising them in the most disruptive way you can imagine – with utter conviction.

You get the sense that Gonzales Has Daft Punk on his mind. Like his fellow Parisians approaching their ‘Random Access Memories’, M83 came to ‘Junk’ off the back of a compromised Disney soundtrack and, similarly, he has talked about this album being an homage to the sounds of his youth. Certainly both ‘Junk’ and the acclaimed ‘Random Access Memories’ feature lovingly sculptured sounds, exactingly recreated using vintage equipment and both prominently feature guest stars. But ‘Random Access Memories’ this is not; Its far more peculiar and far less likely to find a mainstream audience. He does take a leaf from their book though. Gonzales utilises groove and space more than he has before which makes ‘Junk’ a far more dynamic and varied album than the colour starched ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’. The melodies are also brighter, higher in the mix and for the first time the lyrics are instantly discernible.

Gonzalez embraces sentimentality in a way that most artists are too afraid to do. Here he is searching for a feeling that he lost at the end of his childhood, and that resonates in the lyrics, which vaguely dwell on loss and longing. The details are fuzzy and out of focus, as if these memories are being recalled via Vhs or cassette tape, which is complimented by Gonzales reverb drenched, breathy singing. He is at turns determined to revisit the past and move beyond it – contradictory actions which make sense to any of us with happy memories. Sometimes you long to go back and sometimes you long to escape the past. On ‘Walkaway Blues’ Gonzales laments that he’s ‘lost’ and ‘everything’s changed.’ On ‘Road Blaster’ he has gone ‘forward and reverse to forget about you.’ On the beautiful finale he sings about ‘lost memories, faded pictures, can you drive me back to this very moment?’ Often guest singers inhabit his persona but it’s never difficult to see the hand of Gonzales behind their singing. It may be Susan Sandfor belting ‘I’ll wait till the stars go dark for you to come back to me’ but the sentiment is very clearly Gonzales’.

M83 paint in big, bold brush strokes and that lack of subtly makes for an instantly engaging but occasionally short-sighted album. The sickly garishness of big room ballad ‘For the Kids’ Is impressive because it so accurately mimics the sound of all those eighties anthems you love to hate. You get love drunk on the Schmaltz of the thing; on Susane Sondfor’s gorgeous voice, on the sugar sweet melody and on the dramatic chords tenderly massaged out of the vintage synth. But you can have to much of a good thing. When the melody is less memorable, and the lyrics more straightforward, as on ‘Solitude’ or ‘Walkaway Blues’, it doesn’t matter how cool the song sounds, it doesn’t take long for it to fade from your thoughts. There is also something unfortunate about an album that professes to be a love letter to the classic pop song that falters on the marquee numbers. Lead single ‘Do It, Try It’ is deliberately wonky and disorientating. The central piano riff is catchy but everything going on around it is designed to throw you and it ultimately feels too jarring and cynical to effectively introduce the album. Second single, the faceless TV show jingle-esque ‘Go’, is an extended guitar solo and not much else while the song featuring the biggest name, Beck, becomes the most pedestrian M83 track you’re ever likely to hear. The leaner ‘Road Blaster’ and ‘Laser Gun’ should have been chosen as singles; they feel like a throwback to the orchestral synth pop of ‘Hurry Up We’re Dreaming’ stand outs ‘Reunion’ and ‘Steve McQueen ‘ but with more refinement and pop smarts.

There’s no doubt that ‘Junk’ is divisive – you’re either going to love or hate goofball interludes like ‘The Wizard’ or ‘Moon Crystal’ and I’m not sure anybody’s going to be arguing that it’s the best M83 album ever. However, it does feel like the purest representation of Gonzales’ vision to date. His obsession with nostalgia (thematically, musically, lyrically) has been boiled down and frazzled in to a strange, bewildering and often brilliant collection of pop songs. It’s taken a lot of stick for not being as serious or heartfelt as previous m83 epics, but I genuinely believe that to Gonzales this is the most serious and heartfelt thing he’s ever done. It’s just that his heart doesn’t belong with the credible, shoegazing hipsters, it belongs with the weird kids playing dress up and singing along to Mcdonald adverts somewhere in the distant past.

8/10

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