Snobbery is a strange thing in music. Many of those guilty of it also tend to be the ones most vehemently speaking against it. ‘Cool’ is another facet of culture for which a project is often debased for being without. Anyone who knows Andy Warhol understands that somebody can openly embrace kitsch or the superficial and become even more vogue for their ability to be without it – but when a project comes along which unabashedly revels in the most whimsical and sincere aspects of the human character, it’s often faced with instant derision. Junk is that album. Their outfit has never been the epitome of cool, or beyond the dismissal of snobbery, even if their last divisive epic Hurry Up We’re Dreaming ended up catering to the tastes of the fashionable inadvertently (this will happen, when your lead single becomes the theme song for one of the most popular reality shows in the UK). It seem though that Anthony Gonzalez has finally crashed head first into the event horizon of ‘cool’ with this seventh release under the M83 moniker, and many turned their faces in repulsion. Sifting through the heap of Junk though reveals that, beside the fact that the record is innately, inherently uncool – we’ve been served up an album filled with gems.
Opener ‘Do It, Try It’ lays the record’s cards on the table from the off. Vocoder vocals repeat the titular utterance over a cabaret piano until an EDM-flavoured series of euphoric synth-bursts fire off into the stratosphere: which is about as far from cool as imaginable in 2016. Yet the shamelessly rote motivational message and some gorgeous melodies actually come together to form one hell of a sunshine song, and there are many more to follow. ‘Go!’ is a far greater banger than Grimes’ 2015 single of the same name: featuring some gorgeous manipulated vocals straight from the Enya playbook, and a scorching hot guitar solo at the rear of the track courtesy of composer Lyle Workman which blurs the line between tasteless Calvin Harris fodder and tasteless eighties britpop. The result is thrilling either way. ‘Bibi The Dog’ meanwhile sees Mai-Lai Chapiron and Gonzalez coming together over a laid back groove which, for a track with more cheese than a bowling alley’s shoe stash, has one almighty swagger – especially in the ping-pong-ball inspired breakdown mid-way through the track.
‘Laser Gun’ and ‘Road Blaster’, in the album’s second half, form one hell of a one-two punch in the same vein. The former’s opening salvo “small town, too hot/I’m going for a trip” reveals the subtle ingenuity of Junk‘s lyrics. Whilst innately melodic and beholden to a certain pop sensibility; there are no easy choruses, and the distorted vocals obscure the means to a sing-a-long. The production shimmers with the same sheen of the likes of Katy Perry or Taylor Swift, but Gonzalez’s writing is a lot more teasing and inventive than anything you’d find on a chart smash.
There are less-bombastic successes here too. The opening vocals on ‘Atlantique Sud’ are beautiful, whilst closer ‘Sunday Night 1987’ is extremely low-key, riding the LP to a close with a soulful harmonica solo. This inclusion, and the musak saxophone all over the record, reminds of Kaputt’s latest output: classless instrumental choices, but performed with the virtuosity of a killer guitar solo. Junk‘s centrepiece ‘Solitude’ actually features one of these – and it’s one of the few tracks on the album which actually shoots for the epic quality of their previous release. Gonzalez’s singing on the song would fit straight on that record. This cut is much more restrained than much of Hurry Up We’re Dreaming though, and actually wrings some emotion from a quite shallow LP… when the aforementioned guitars rise up, it’s genuinely quite emotive.
Though some half an hour shorter than M83’s last, Junk still isn’t without it’s filler however. Interludes ‘Tension’ and ‘Ludivine’ bring little to the table, as the copious amount from their prior album also didn’t. ‘Moon Crystal’ is a track almost humorous in the extent to which it, like the rest of the album, worships sitcom and game show title music from the eighties. It’s the slow burning ‘For The Kids’ though which is an obvious low light. Susanne Sundfor’s vocals are pretty, and another monologue from Zelly Meldal-Johnsen makes the song something of a sequel to ‘Raconte-Moi une Histoire’ from their 2011 release – but what worked so well there doesn’t gel on Junk: her childish inflection bringing an ill-fitting wonder to an LP that’s actually rather grounded and whimsical, for all its spaced-out synths.
There’s a lot that’s been read into Junk: either by M83 fans longing for more of their once fairly straight-lipped band after a five year wait, or critics who align its nostalgic sensibilities with the likes of Random Access Memories. Daft Punk’s masterpiece was a statement about a shared sonic history though, whereas M83 don’t seem to making a statement about anything. This isn’t vaporwave. There are references to childhood in the album’s fleeting lyrics and it seems that’s why the sounds of the eighties are reassembled here more than anything. Gonzalez seems to be making this music purely because he enjoys it, and because it makes him happy. You only have to look at the accompanying media for this record versus their last: the starry eyed sci-fi epics that accompanied their sixth album have been replaced with a meme of a dog floating in space and an album cover featuring a burger made of clay. Just because this is an unabashedly fun and colourful LP though, it doesn’t make the performances or the song writing any weaker than they actually are. Junk is an impossibly low key record for a band as grandiose as M83 to make, but it’s refreshing in that it bears its lust for life without the slightest hint of cynicism. Which of course makes it intensely uncool. But for those seeing Gonzalez and co. touring the record in the summer to come, it might just be the most fun you’ll have all year.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.