Anthony Gonzalez, the creative mastermind behind M83, has always had a fixation with alternate realities. His best work creates other worlds and takes you deep within them. But his latest album, Junk, is so preoccupied with exploring the sounds and clichés of the ’80s that it often brims with irredeemable kitsch.
Junk is more focused on mood and atmosphere than 2011’s explosive, critically acclaimed Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, but like with much of M83’s best work, Gonzalez’s M.O. continues to be figuring out how to make almost tacky samples sound sleek and refined. Given the current fascination with exploring the sounds of the ’80s, however (recent music from Dev Hynes, Carly Rae Jepsen, Ryan Adams, and Taylor Swift all come to mind), Junk sounds particularly on-the-nose, beginning with its Punky Brewster–referencing cover art. There are moments on this record that sound like ’80s dancehall and others that invoke hair metal, elevator Muzak, and Mike Post–grade TV theme songs all at once. “Go!” features a long “crazy space solo” (Gonzalez’s words, not mine) from esteemed guitarist Steve Vai (who, for what it’s worth, recorded with Spinal Tap). For every chic Balearic beat, there is an equal and opposite cheesy saxophone. This makes sense, given that Gonzalez has said that the record was influenced by ’70s and ’80s TV shows like Who's the Boss? — but these influences, when taken together, make the record sound like an SNL spoof of the Reagan era, albeit a well-produced one.
“Moon Crystal,” “Laser Gun,” and “Road Blaster” all reinforce Gonzalez’s focus on creating albums that are their own sonic universes, but often he does so on this record using elements that are too saccharine to take seriously. “Moon Crystal,” an instrumental five songs in, sounds like optimistic elevator music, all smooth jazz and fluorescent keyboard loops. “For the Kids” recalls “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and continues the thread of M83’s fixation with childhood innocence as a form of catharsis and exploration — but the prelude leading up to the spoken-word portion of the song (“If we believe it, it will happen,” whispers a small child) is laden with enough cheesy sax and misty vocals that the optimism is rendered meaningless, lost in a circuit of cliché. (“I don’t know when I’ll see you again / But I know that my love will last for eternity / I’ll wait till the stars go dark for you,” Susanne Sundfør sings on the track.) Junk’s standout tracks — “Laser Gun,” “Bibi the Dog,” and “Go!” — succeed best in the moments when they forsake pastiche, but those periods are often sandwiched in between seemingly excessive sound effects (hair-metal synths? Something that sounds like a Furby on helium?) that detract from some of the more impressive synthpop harmonies. Many of the melodies belying the kitschier moments on Junk are lovely — but “lovely” is also a different feeling from “epic,” a word that Gonzalez used to describe the record in its early stages, which makes it seem like all of this is meant to be taken seriously and at face value.
Part of this sea change in M83’s sound may have to do with shifts in production (keyboardist and occasional vocalist Morgan Kibby, who worked on Hurry Up, Were Dreaming and 2008's Saturdays = Youth, wasn't involved in this record). But despite the corniness, Junk comes together with the evangelical zeal of Gonzalez’s best work — he’s referencing ’80s sitcoms as an influence here, and he’s really going for it. The lyrics, if anything, present the only question mark in terms of this objective, as the words buried within many of the instrumentals on Junk only add to the opacity of the person writing them. Like fellow French producers Daft Punk and Air, M83’s lyrics are often universal and genderless — which doesn’t do much by way of crafting a personal narrative, for those who might seek one on a record whose production feels so intentional. The phrases are broad and ambitious — “We’ll dance on repeat!” an Auto-Tuned voice calls out on the early single “Do It, Try It” — but, ultimately, these are paltry concerns to have with a record that feels so tongue-in-cheek. How seriously can this record be taken? Especially when it’s called Junk? Given its obsession with parody and a grab bag of sound effects, it seems to function best when taken with a grain of salt. This is a goofy record, but Gonzalez deserves credit for adhering so strictly to his Day-Glo vision.