M83’s ‘Junk’ Is the Kitschy Headache of an Album We Deserve

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We should’ve listened to Anthony Gonzalez. In a year that cursed us with the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Charlie Sheen’s public meltdown, one of the worst tsunamis in history, and Anders Behring Breivik, he gave us Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Specifically, he gave us “Midnight City” and “Wait.” If you can forget how many times you’ve heard those two songs in commercials or films, it’s not hard to see that they’re damn beautiful. They were antidotes to the muck of the world, ultralight beams cutting through the horrific headlines. Hell, even Gonzalez’s vocals on those songs sound, at times, like defiant screams. It was exactly the thing we needed at exactly the time we needed it.

But things didn’t get better; art isn’t world-changing, no matter how beautiful the soundtrack to a Victoria’s Secret ad. ISIS, Trump, Benghazi, Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan — the list of terrors goes on, long enough for an update to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Gonzalez didn’t go full Billy Joel on Junk, his follow-up to Hurry Up, but he came close — in fact, he reached farther into the past — and who can blame him for his nostalgia?

It was clear from the start of the Junk press cycle that Gonzalez wanted nothing to do with “Midnight City.” Aesthetically, first single “Do It, Try It” and its accompanying art were a complete departure from the luminous photography of Hurry Up. There were knock-off Fry Guys on the cover and a video with a talking dog, and a song that sounded like a 1987 rave — or NBA Jam. Licensing cash, who needs it?

And then “Solitude” dropped, and suddenly it seemed that maybe Gonzalez had managed to pull a Grimes by keeping the beauty of his prior work while catapulting into some post-success weirdness. When released on its own, it was a nice reminder of what M83 do best. But, in the context of the album, it’s a game-changer, it takes your breath away, it makes you want to travel back in time and tell Gonzalez that, yes, that’s it, make a whole album of this. But he didn’t, and the promise of its prettiness is broken ten times over, bashed in the head by kitsch.

Because this album is long. It’s not the double-album chore of Hurry Up, but it is jam-packed, full of sound sardines. Gonzalez has always been a maximalist, but before, that maximalism felt earned: his crying vocals made it seem like all that other noise was necessary. On Junk, he might as well be whispering. It really does seem as if he’s drowning in the loudness of the world around him. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing — except the production is so brazen, like a car crash in a Chuck Norris movie.

That juxtaposition can be beautiful, but only rarely: on “Road Blaster,” Gonzalez whirs his drum machine into machine-gun mode to create a song perfect for wind-in-your-hair summertime driving. It’s also the track closest to “Midnight City,” its yelping synths acting as the chorus as the world of the ’80s comes to life around it. “Time Wind” features Beck in sad Sea Change mode, happily. Penultimate track “Ludivine” is an almost-instrumental wash, the only vocals literal moans. Halfway point “The Wizard” is the same, and the two taken together remind you of the strength of subtlety.

But this departure isn’t surprising. In the years since Hurry Up, the sax sound owned by Gonzalez entered the public domain and spread through indie rock and pop thanks to Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid. And the ’70s and ’80s? Books will be written on the way those sounds have suffocated the music of the past decade. Oddly, Junk most closely resembles Todd Terje’s 2014 album It’s Album Time. Terje’s space-disco bleeps and bloops are heard throughout, but are most egregious on “Walkway Blues,” a would-be jam, if the chorus didn’t sound like an art-school take on Random Access Memories. “Bibi the Dog” plays with those sounds, too, but to much greater success — because it’s sung entirely in French.

The lyrics on this album, as far as they can be understood, are not any better or worse than the lyrics on other pop albums, but they’re little more than a distraction. With that in mind, Gonzalez and his band are so much better when they embrace their French side. It’s a shock when it happens — up until this point, for those too lazy to Google, the band might have been from any generic European country, or even America. But when the album embraces its Frenchness, the thing somehow sounds fresher. Maybe that’s thanks to our tendency to romanticize French culture, or maybe it’s just that the type of weeping willow synths that crawl all over this album are better suited to nothing but more soft noise. Or maybe this is Gonzalez’s attempt at an early-era Serge Gainsbourg album, only updated to mirror the all-and-everything nature of now, and all the English blurs that vision.

Either way, it’s a brave thing, naming your album Junk. If it’s trash, discussion of the music within is limited to a shrug and a tossed off, “It’s all in the title, man.” If it’s not, well, what’s about to happen, happens: we make the easy allusion to literal trash-picking, say that Gonzalez was gathering discarded sounds from years past and collaging them into an esoteric mess. But this album is neither, and if anything, that title is just commentary on the ever-worsening world at large. This album is Gonzalez shedding his synth-blast past and embracing his hokey French history. He gave us his beauty, and this is his beast — only it’s half-formed, bilingual, and still overstuffed: a whole lot of everything, but nothing that’ll change the world.