M83’s ‘Junk’ explores childhood influences, retro pastiche

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When you go searching through the attic of junk that your parents have stored there for decades, sometimes you come back down with something interesting. That seems to be the hope of M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, who dug through his memories of his parents’ music taste as inspiration for his newest release, Junk. It’s the band’s first release in six years, and it faced the prospect of following not only a fantastic album in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, but also the behemoth “Midnight City,” a song that launched M83 into an international household name.

In a clearly deliberate move, Gonzalez has elected to ignore the shadow cast by that song entirely. Instead he stepped farther back in time. In a recent interview, he revealed that while he hated the ‘60s and ‘70s music of his parents’ generation growing up, he’s grown fascinated by it, developed a respect for it. With this album he’s also shown that he can synthesize it. But the question that arises after listening to Junk is whether he’s done it too well.

The album has clear strong points. While the single “Do It, Try It” opens with a honky-tonk piano line that is undeniably grating, it is quickly abandoned for a lush, well-built synthescape chorus that is instantly familiar to M83 fans. And thankfully, afterward, Gonzalez settled for a more subtle bass line driven verse. The song’s final build-up is perfectly infectious — satisfyingly huge without being overpowering.

“Do It, Try It” is immediately followed by “Go!”, featuring vocals by Mai Lan. Likely the most widely discussed song on the album, the song sits as the album’s requisite pop anthem and knows it, building into each chorus with a two-measure spoken countdown covered by a irresistibly funky guitar riff. As the song progresses, it begins to blur the line between homage and a direct pipeline to the past, as Steve Vai steps in to shred through the last chorus of the song with a downright biting guitar solo. The solo is, undoubtedly, the centerpiece of the song, and frankly, it’s awesome.

Other moments jump out as well. “Road Blaster” is guaranteed to induce a smile. Somehow its central synth-sax riff plays you with its cheerfulness; you want to laugh at its campiness but ultimately you just end up letting it in to fill you with inexplicable giddiness. In a direct contrast, “Solitude” features lush strings and Gonzalez’s tortured vocals in one of the album’s most beautiful tracks. The strings start as a counterpart and background to Gonzalez, but soon grow to fill the sonic space and dominate over all else. The sentiment is touched on again in the closing song, “Sunday Night 1987,” to great effect.

Where the album falters is in the instrumental tracks, which typically serve as the narrative thread between the vocal tracks. Gonzalez has said he wanted the album to be a collection of standalone works, but ultimately it leaves the album spineless. Addressing that by labeling it as a collection of “junk” doesn’t change the fact that one becomes lost without any guidance from within the record.

The instrumental tracks in his previous work have often been his way of providing the thread that connects the album’s main statements. Here, they fall short. While the throwbacks to ‘70s sonic styles work in “Go!” and “Road Blaster,” these are too steeped in that genre. In fact, they feel more like actual songs from the ‘70s than 2016 reimaginings of them. The lack of reinvention separates them from the other tracks, and cause them to distract — or put off — rather than guide.

It’s hard to stay cynical, though. Gonzalez is an artist who during this six-year hiatus has had many expectations piled on over his previous two expansive and well-received albums, and it’s easy to see why he’s responded reactionarily. But despite its faults, Junk is a pleasure to listen to, and sometimes, that’s all we need.

Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected].