Sunday, April 10, 2016

Junk | M83

With the release of M83's seventh studio, frontman Anthony Gonzalez is in some hot water with bullheaded fans and critics. Why? Because Junk is different. It has defined climaxes and a splash of pop sensibility, passing as a mutant lovechild of unpopular electronica (the kind you won't be hearing at your local nightclub, for better or for worse) and M83 of days past. It's not a grandiose concept album like the band's last, and it's certainly not what they know and love from M83. But the band's last album pointed towards the direction Junk took, so this shouldn't come as a shock. Furthermore, this set is still a strange one -- something else that shouldn't come as a shock and should make fans happier than they are.

In fact, his career trajectory has been nothing but strange. While it was the subject of critics' highest praises for almost a decade and already had five albums in its back catalog by 2011, M83 didn't truly break through until that year's "Midnight City," the crowning jewel of its massive double-disc album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming that is often cited as the track that set the current trends of quality pop music into motion -- the pop music, by the way, that he told Pitchfork "is just awful" and makes him "want to puke." (A little dramatic, he is.) 

Where did the band go after that? To the top of festival billings but to the back of people's minds, as the band made minor ripples on the surface with soundtracks for Oblivion, a Tom Cruise-fronted film received with lukewarm critical response, and a 2013 French film written and directed by Gonzalez's brother that IMDb describes as a tale of "a young couple and their transvestite maid [as they] prepare for an orgy." For its major return, Gonzalez and his gang dropped the cover art for this album and the odd banger "Do It, Try It," both reaffirming the band's eccentricity (as if that orgy movie soundtrack already didn't).

Junk is an experience, to say the least. It's part '80s television score, part intergalactic ambiance, part nostalgia trip, and largest part mess -- and it's unapologetic in being such. Gonzalez knows how to make even the set of his most formulated tracks seem unorganized, each new turn taken on a coincidentally appropriate whim. In the case of this set's lead single, a mess of piano keys and vocoder-laced vocals (he favors synthesization and heavy reverberation that make him and his feature vocalist sound as if they're singing in a cave, if you lot couldn't tell at this point) barrel into blaring synthesized extravaganzas. For "Go!," it means a smash-worthy chorus veering into a guitar solo integrated among the madness. And "Moon Crystal" goes for that coveted late twentieth century sitcom jugular; all it's missing are the awkward over-the-shoulder poses and title cards.

Moments of sticky saccharin and blasts of utter euphoria ("Road Blaster," the space-age "Laser Gun," "Bibi the Dog") are counteracted with glistening nostalgia. "Solitude" sprawls across six minutes, filled with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Halfway through its run time, an orchestra of strings and guitars take the baton from the first half's cavernous, space-age production -- a transition that seems messy on paper but actually plays out quite nicely.  And closing out the album on its most somber reflection, "Sunday Night 1987" wraps up the introspective drive down memory lane before a sad horn solo draws the album to a close on a much more peaceful note than it began on.

Nowadays, it's easy to say that an artist borrows from the '80s. Taylor Swift did it, La Roux did it better, and Carly Rae Jepsen did it the best. But Gonzalez was specific in his target sound for this one: '80s television. Yes, straightforward, disposable 90-second tracks that have no business being compared in any way, shape, or form to M83-style complex blanket of production. Yet here we are, and he's done the impossible, revolutionizing the most basic of influences into orchestrated madness. It was a very strange target for which to aim, but as we've already determined, strange is nothing new for him. Mix in the space music and slurred, echoed vocals, and you have yourself a cocktail only M83 could throw together, even it is sometimes more blindly enjoyable than comprehensible.

Junk is available now under Mute Records.

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