Review Summary: Midnight City Saxophone Solo: The Album
M83 has trafficked in nostalgia – and done it far better than most of their contemporaries – for as long as the project has existed. That Junk
pushes this trend to its logical, albeit extreme, conclusion is less surprising than the almost mercenary route the group takes in doing so: by highlighting all the trashy, neon-lit flashpoints and lowest-common-denominator entertainment of the ‘80s that Saturday = Youth
skipped in favor of soft-lit romance and John Hughes films. Interviews that M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez gave in the run-up to Junk
hinted at the direction he would be taking with his seventh LP, showcasing a downright virulent distaste for the success 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
brought. His comments to Pitchfork that music fans these days “pick certain songs they like – one, two, if you’re lucky – and trash the rest. All else becomes junk,” is clearly directed at ubiquitous single “Midnight City” and its legion of fans. This barely disguised disgust for modern pop music, which he curmudgeonly and vaguely blames on “digital” sounds, is at the heart of Junk
. To be sure, an album like Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
is an intimidating one to follow, and a monstrous crossover hit like “Midnight City” even more so. The personal and professional struggles Gonzalez experienced after that record are well-catalogued, and in turn Junk
feels like a lashing out at this popularity, a deliberate turn inward to the sounds that Gonzalez grew up with. Yet for a guy who lamented in that same interview that it’s “impossible to come up with something new,” Junk
only seems to exacerbate the recycling of pop tropes that Gonzalez rails against, an emulation rather than a celebration. In this context, Junk
is a deeply cynical record.
For all his get-off-my-lawn philosophizing, don’t let it be said that Gonzalez doesn’t give it his all, no matter how tossed-off he may want these songs to appear. First single “Do It, Try It” is bonkers in all the right ways, a ragtime piano ditty on acid that devolves into theatrical fireworks, 16-bit synths sliding up against a slap bass and hilarious pitch-shifted “woo’s.” It’s propulsive and fun, but that sense of an “organized mess” that Gonzalez intended with the record is lost as things progress. “Go” is more indicative of the rest of Junk
, a widescreen funk jam that highlights new vocalist Mai Lan and a number of ‘80s clichés that serve as a prelude for what’s to come. It’s anthemic and thoroughly entertaining, and when Steve Vai makes an appearance with an absolutely ridiculous guitar solo, you can’t help but laugh. Faces haven’t been melted this obnoxiously since Doc was firing up the DeLorean.
Indeed, the first third of Junk
is about as well-done an ‘80s pastiche as one can hear today without drowning in cheese, even the criminally dramatic “Walkway Blues” justifying itself with an irresistibly groovy melody. As Junk
progresses, however, you get a better sense of why Gonzalez chose to put some godda
mn Fry Guys on the cover with a font ripped from old sitcoms. There’s something to be said for exploring the past, but an instrumental like “Moon Crystal" is less an interpretation and more a slavish caricature of something you’d hear while the end credits play on a particularly noxious family values show or, worse, Too Many Cooks
. Other ostensible interludes like “The Wizard” and “Tension” call to mind bad public access PSAs or an extended montage where the heroine finally gets the leather jacketed guy she’s been pining over for the past 90 minutes. The hilarious novelty that Vai brings to “Go” is lost sometime around the time Gonzalez ruins the slow burn orchestral bliss of “Solitude” with an insane keytar solo, of all things. It’s the musical equivalent of the end result of the Legend of Lard-Ass pie-eating contest scene in Stand By Me
Gonzalez himself is more of a ringleader than a frontman here, letting guests like Susanne Sundfor lift up the otherwise treacly soft-rock ballad “For The Kids” or a narcoleptic Beck weigh down the already leaden “Time Wind.” That’s not always to the record’s detriment – Mai Lan’s turns on tracks like “Go” and the bouncy “Laser Gun” add a welcome dimension to M83’s sound. Indeed, Junk
functions best as Gonzalez curating the soundtrack of his past, as on an individual basis these songs are usually quite enjoyable, well-crafted and dripping with affection for an era most people would prefer to forget. In that respect, Gonzalez’s statement to Pitchfork tells more than just his disgust with the single-oriented mindset of today’s pop audience. Yet there’s nothing new to be found here, no previously unexplored nook or cranny that M83 turns into something fresh: it’s crate-digging to scratch Gonzalez’s own itch, nothing more. When “Sunday Night 1987” closes things out with abundant horns and an honest-to-God harmonica solo, the line between affection and irony has finally blurred beyond all recognition. It’s schmaltz for the sake of schmaltz, the kind of song that I imagine plays in the world’s saddest shopping mall, stale and suffocating. It feels like a tomb.