Album of the Week: M83, 'Junk'

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M83, 'Junk'
M83, 'Junk' (Mute)

M83 went about as big as you can get with their sprawling 2011 opus Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, buoyed by the worldwide smash, "Midnight City." While Anthony Gonzalez hinted that he may try to go even bigger with the band's proper follow-up, the ensuing album, Junk, wound up being something far stranger, and in a sense, perhaps even more intriguing.

Gonzalez has spoken in interviews about attempting to resurrect bits of pop culture thought to have been lost or forgotten, and repurpose them into something both nostalgic and new. This is nothing new for M83, mind you — it's nigh impossible to discuss any of the band's previous half-dozen albums without at some point mentioning John Hughes, for example. But there was a moment on Hurry Up, We're Dreaming that, in retrospect, I feel paved the way for the direction M83 have taken on Junk: there is a drum fill at the beginning of the song "OK Pal" that uncannily recalls Johnny Clegg's "Life Is a Magic Thing," the theme from 1992's FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Every time I hear "OK Pal," it instantly takes me back to being eight years old, watching FernGully in the theater, and given Gonzalez's fondness for deriving nostalgia from obscure sources, I suspect that was his exact intent.

Junk veers even more frenetically across a range of influences, giving the effect of an anthology of postcards from the past. The first half of Junk challenges the listener in strikingly odd fashion. As the sonic direction changes with each ensuing song, the only rhythm is discord itself; this can feel disappointing in the wake of M83's previous, immaculately sequenced records, but each discrete unit entertains in its own way. Side 1 travels from spacey ragtime ("Do It, Try It") to Steve Vai shredding ("Go!") to vocoder rock ("Walkway Blues") to Darkwing Duck slap bass ("Bibi the Dog") to a theme for a television show that never existed ("Moon Crystal") to a Don Bluth ballad ("For the Kids") before concluding with the luscious strings of the epic "Solitude." Whew! Given this zaniness, the second half of the record provides a sort of relief. Side 2 is a more cohesive unit, as a fairly consistent batch of pleasantly M83-ish songs.

"Solitude" is the literal and figurative centerpiece of the album, straining the limits of personal emotions in a sprawling six minutes. It's hard not to compare it to classic-period Elton John; namely, "Funeral for a Friend." But think about "Funeral for a Friend" and how it is balanced so vitally by its companion "Love Lies Bleeding," which provides its own accompanying set of excitement and thrills, making the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album worth the price of admission after just the first track. M83's Anthony Gonzalez has always displayed a preternatural savviness for coaxing catharsis out of his records, sometimes within a single track (look back at "Coleurs" or "Steve McQueen") or over a course of an entire record (for as wonderful as Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is, it's the final sung note at the spectacular climax of "Outro" that elevates that album from great to classic). Junk, however, never quite hits that note; there's no "Love Lies Bleeding" to elevate the experience, so while each song pleasantly floats in its own little headspace, nothing truly connects with the listener, which is disappointing. Then again, Gonzalez has also said that as with the cultural detritus he tries to emulate, most of these songs will eventually become forgotten space dust in the end anyway, so he could well be winking back at us the whole time.

In 2040, some intrepid musician will make a record inspired by the Lonely Island, Too Many Cooks, and "Hot Cheetos and Takis," and will no doubt be met with a similarly bewildered reaction. Like Gonzalez with Junk, though, it would be an effort committed to summoning the spirit of a lost time; for Gonzalez's devotion to capturing that moment, Junk is a rewarding, albeit baffling, success.

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Among The Current's listeners who submitted a rating for this album, 50 percent gave the album 5 out of 5 stars. Poll closed at 12 noon on Friday, May 13.


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