In Brief: The cover art says it all. Bright, pastel colored, cartoonish, seemingly slapped together with little rhyme or reason, and totally radical. It’s not quite the dreamworld full of glassy seas and funhouse mirrors that was M83’s last album, but there’s a lot of cheesy charm amidst these 15 tracks all the same.
80s revival bands are a dime a dozen these days. I still haven’t totally figured out how I went from despising the cheesy, rubbery sound of those 80s hits I missed out on during my childhood years, to being fond of so many of the modern bands trying to reclaim it after a period where it was seen as passe, to finally starting to appreciate some of the source material that inspired it and realizing I was wrong to stigmatize it as “not real music” in the first place. Some bands make a real effort to emphasize the “live band” aspect of otherwise synthesized music, while others totally embrace the artificial, consumerist nature of it. French electronic band M83 certainly wore their hearts on their sleeves on 2011’s double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which had its share of goofy moments, but which also had some surprisingly beautiful ballads and instrumental passages to balance out the inherent silliness of some of its up-tempo numbers. Their intent seemed to be sincere. I could respect that, and I went back to that record a lot more than I normally would a record of its length in a genre that (at the time) I wasn’t totally sold on.
This time around, on their new record, Junk, I’m pretty sure they must be attuned to the inherent cornball nature of the sounds that they’re making, and they decide to just lean into it and have fun with it. It’s not as ambitious as Hurry Up was – it’s only one disc and there seems to be no concept or unifying theme to it. Stylistically, it jumps around quite a bit, leaning heavily on the nostalgia throughout, but almost feeling like you’re changing channels as you jump from song to song, with the interludes and random experiments feeling especially random, as if you’d unearthed a compilation of 80s music in some bargain bin and decided someone oughta finally give it some love. Lead singer and group mastermind Anthony Gonzalez actually hands over the mic to several other singers, which adds to the “mixtape” mood of it – none of these other people have sung with M83 before, as far as I’m aware. It takes their sound into new and interesting territory at times, but then there are other times when I worry it might be underselling these other people’s talents. French singer Mai Lan is the most visible guest vocalist, appearing on four tracks out of the fifteen, while new band member Jordan Lawlor, Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfør, and Beck (!) round out the rest of the vocal duties, some of them occasionally sharing the lead with Anthony, but just as often taking the spotlight for an entire song. It’s a jarring mix of sounds and ideas – even an off-putting mix at first because the group seems to have had no roadmap to how this thing would turn out. Like a lot of stuff that found commercial success in the 80s, it’s not necessarily brilliant art, but there’s something oddly charming about the air of innocence it gives off, as if its makers genuinely believed it was the sound of the future.
1. Do It, Try It
The first few seconds of this track are a good warning shot across the bow for anyone who’s expecting to take this record seriously. Just about everything is as goofy as possible – the warped vocals, the piano pounding away like it was dropped in from some sort of a cabaret number, the overly conspicuous use of slap bass, etc. Despite the odd taste it leaves in your mouth, the song seems to be begging the listener to give this oddball exploration of vintage sounds a chance, as if it were the aural equivalent of Green Eggs and Ham. Once the chorus gets going and the synths really kick in, it’s much more identifiable as the M83 we know and love, and at that point it’s a little easier to get caught up in the cheesy fun of it all as Anthony sings of “A dance on repeat, a trance on a heartbeat”. I see it as an invitation to put away your pretenses of whatever people expect you to think is “cool”, and given that, it’s not a bad thesis statement for the entire record.
The laid-back synths and saxophone at the beginning of this track are misleading. Have I suddenly been dropped into an 80s police drama? Despite the disorienting intro, this song achieves a downright amazing balance between its ambient verses and bridge, and its high-energy chorus, and we’ve got the stuttering, slightly robotic, yet charmingly feminine voice of Mai Lan to guide us through the obstacle course, as she signs of her longing to close the gap between her and a far-off lover. There’s nothing too lyrically deep here, but the chord progression is pure pop genius, and the rhythm guitar adds a hefty dose of propulsion as she “counts down” to the chorus. The icing on the cake here is an uncredited “space guitar” solo from Steve Vai that shows up at a climactic moment during the bridge and sticks around until the edge of the song, wrapping it up in a nice, big, neon bow. Sometimes you just gotta say “Screw subtlety”, y’know?
3. Walkway Blues
Jordan Lawlor’s lyrical and vocal contribution to this album finds him left out in the cold, alone on a sidewalk, shut out of the life of a former lover. Did she throw him out of his house? I’m confused as to why sidewalks play such an important role in this song, but whatever. This one’s more relaxed and mid-tempo. The melody and instrumentation don’t jump out at me as much, but it’s pleasant enough. There’s a not-too-shabby synth/guitar solo at one point (I kind of like that I can’t tell which), and I do enjoy the digitized vocal effect on the chorus, and the keyboard melody echoing it as the song fades out. I think there are some ambient street sounds as well, and that’s a nice touch to close out the song.
4. Bibi the Dog
This is one of the silliest things on the record, and there’s a lot of competition in that department. The bass licks are so thick that you can practically envision them expanding like huge pink wads of bubble gum. Mai Lan takes the lead here again, and for most of the song, she’s speaking in French, almost whispering, giving the song an air of faux-sophistication. I have no idea who is “singing” the chorus since it’s so heavily digitized that it may as well be synthesized speech. Here the lyrics are in English, but they’re grade school as far as rhymes go: “Walking to the beat”, “Talking to the street”, “Running in the heat.” (What, nothing about the people you meet?) The vocal manipulation just gets more and more ridiculous as the song goes on, almost sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks during the bridge section. The rhythm section’s kind of fun here, but the song’s 100% skippable aside from that.
5. Moon Crystal
This instrumental interlude, with its canned strings, happy-go-lucky piano melody, and candy-coated fuzzbox guitar licks are pretty much the Hill Street Blues theme on Prozac. It’s kind of fun when they change up the rhythm of it here and there, but the overall jolly mood of it makes it feel more like muzak than actual music. I’m gonna guess from the title that this was the theme song to a never-aired sitcom starring Billy Crystal and Soleil Moon Frye.
6. For the Kids
I’m guessing reactions to this sentimental piano ballad will be heavily polarized. Susanne Sundfør takes the lead here, and there’s plenty of weight and longing apparent in her voice as she ponders where a loved one has gone to. In place of a chorus, there’s a sympathetic sax solo, and due to how it comes wafting in after each verse, I can almost picture a music video where there’s a soft, translucent wipe from the singer on one side of the screen to a curly-haired saxophonist on the other, playing on a cliff with waves crashing behind him or something cheesily dramatic like that. The crowning cornball achievement on the entire record is when a child’s voice comes in during the bridge. It’s the same little girl who narrated “Raconte-Moi un Histoire” on Hurry Up, and here she’s a ghostly presence comforting her mother from beyond the grave. “I am the wind, mommy! And the wind is never sad!” It’s so corny that, as the kids like to say these days, I just can’t even. I can see this track being absolutely devastating to someone who’s lost a child, but for the rest of us, it’s too painfully saccharine to swallow.
Despite the hodgepodge nature of the record due to all of the different singers, I do like that Anthony’s vocal contribution here (his first since the very beginning of the record, as far as I can tell) seems to feed off of the bittersweet mood of the previous track. It’s a slow, ambient trip to the apparent depths of his loneliness and despair. It’s a down-tempo track that really gives enough space for the synths, strings, and the contours of his vocal melody to communicate the sorrow he’s feeling here, without it feeling nearly as manipulative as the previous track. The lyrics are minimal and yet evocative: “You gotta go/Where I cry/And take in all the tears/I wanna see if you can try/Drink a little bit of me.” The chorus is literally a single word: “No”. And yet the way he delivers that word speaks volumes. An extended instrumental break, full of synths and strings and distant guitar, brings the song to a beautiful climax, surprisingly without leaning as heavily on the cheese factor as so many of their other songs do. It’s the longest track on the album at 6 minutes, but aside from the outro taking its time to wind down like at the end of a Sigur Rós track, I’m not generally conscious of the length of it, which I think is a good sign, because the song has adequate space to really dwell on a feeling without ever getting tedious.
8. The Wizard
I really, really hate it when music is purposefully produced to sound unclear. I know they did it at the beginning of this short instrumental to make it came from an old, warped VHS tape, and it’s an amusing effect at first, but it takes up nearly half of an already short track. By the time it comes full color, the cosmic sounds in play are admirable enough, but then it fades out too quickly after that to really do much for me.
9. Laser Gun
Mai Lan is back for another mostly spoken word track, though she does get to sing here as well, and the result is a fun assertion of girl power. From the bouncy piano at the beginning, this one gets me moving even though the pace of it is more laid-back than most of the other up-tempo tracks on Junk. This one’s a much better balance of singing and spoken word than the ridiculous “Bibi the Dog”. There’s definitely a childlike angle to its cheerleader-esque chanting of “Got it all, BAM! Got everything! Got all I need!”, and it almost turns a corner into cutesy J-pop territory, but then there’s the synth and the saxophone, and I’m yanked right back the pastel-colored excess of 80s America. It’s totally silly, but purely due to the kaleidoscope of musical sounds, it’s one of the most enjoyable songs on the album, even if it’s total nonsense.
10. Road Blaster
M83 sure loves the saxophone! It’s the lead instrument here, almost as if some smooth jazz player needed a bouncy, sexy synthpop sort of beat to serve as background for his instrumental ode to life in the fast lane. Remember how “Midnight City” didn’t really have a chorus, instead just returning to that big, freaky, distorted vocal hook? This track attempts to do something similar by putting the sax melody front and center, but the result is that I don’t end up really caring about anything the lyrics or vocals are doing. Then again, that allows Anthony to slip in the lyric, “Evil is God and I’m going straight to Hell” without me even noticing it until I actually look at the lyric sheet. Remember how up in arms religious conservatives once were about alleged hidden Satanic messages in seemingly innocuous pop music? This must be a dig at that, right?
Here’s another instrumental passage that sounds like it could have come straight from a sitcom, albeit one of the more serious moments of a sitcom when some sort of dramatic montage is playing out on screen and the music has to do the heavy lifting due to the actors and/or dialogue not being able to cut it. I like the troubled twists and turns of the melody, but the highly synthetic nature of it makes it the kind of thing that can only be taken as seriously as the background music on Full House can.
12. Atlantique Sud
Anthony and Mai Lan sing a genuine duet here, which keeps the smooth 80s vibe but gives the synths a rest, letting the piano and orchestra do most of the work instead. The entire thing’s in French, which I actually like, because I kind of wanted to hear more French lyrics on their last album. The way they trade vocals back and forth makes it sound very conversational, almost like a tender scene from a musical, though the mood here is more calm and tender than overly dramatic. Again, Mai Lan’s tone of voice has an almost childlike quality to it, so I’m imagining the song as a father telling his daughter why he has to go have some adventure and sail the seven seas or whatnot, and the daughter pleading with him to stay. For all I know, it’s about something totally different.
13. Time Wind
Here’s where Beck finally shows up. I don’t know enough about Beck to honestly say that I’d have recognized his voice here out of context, if not for the liner notes telling me it was him. I guess I expect anything Beck does to be quirky in some way, so the more laid-back approach here makes it seem at first like a high-profile guest is having his talents squandered. If I ignore that, it’s not a bad song – I like the vintage keyboard tones, the bumping bass line, the smooth melody, and the inherent desperation of trying to hold onto a moment in time via photographs or other keepsakes when you can tell the present state of relationship is slowly slipping away into oblivion. This should be a bigger emotional moment than it is.
The shortest instrumental track on the album is just moody synth tones and a bit of ethereal vocalizing. Once again I’m reminded of Sigur Rós, specifically some of their outro or interlude tracks that echo melodic bits from a more grandiose song earlier in one of their albums. Except this one’s not reprising anything I can recognize from another song, so while I guess it’s a nice little pause for effect after “Time Wind” fades out, it doesn’t really do much to draw attention to itself and it seems like a leftover bit from an aborted film soundtrack project.
15. Sunday Night 1987
The album closes with a much better entry in the “tender keyboard ballad” genre, a fond farewell to a fallen friend by the name of Julia Alexander. It’s one of Anthony’s stronger vocal performances, gently tugging at the heartstrings instead of blatantly yanking at them. I can almost hear hints of Bon Iver‘s “Beth/Rest” in this one (so basically imagine if Bon Iver converted to unabashedly mining 70s and 80s nostalgia full time instead of doing the indie folk thing). The song – and the record – close out with an incredibly cathartic harmonica solo, which would be a great tribute to Stevie Wonder if not for the fact that he’s still alive. (As of this writing, at least. 2016 has not been a good year for iconic pop stars of the 70s and 80s. I’m just sayin’.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Do It, Try It $1.25
Walkway Blues $.75
Bibi the Dog $.25
Moon Crystal $.50
For the Kids $.25
The Wizard $.25
Laser Gun $1.50
Road Blaster $1
Atlantique Sud $.75
Time Wind $1
Sunday Night 1987 $1.25
Anthony Gonzalez: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion, programming, etc.
Jordan Lawlor: Vocals, guitar, keyboards, programming
Loïc Maurin: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: