Throughout musical history, there are numerous examples of artists following up their most successful record with their most abrasive one, deliberately shifting away from the sound that caused their popularity in the first place. Animal Collective followed up Merriweather Post Pavilion with Centipede Hz, Radiohead followed up OK Computer with Kid A, and Kanye West followed up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with Yeezus. Somewhat tellingly, there’s a fairly wide quality gap between the best and worst of those albums, so where does M83’s Junk fall on the spectrum?
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and more specifically Midnight City was undoubtedly M83’s breakout moment. Anthony Gonzalez had previously been something of an indie prince, but that song rocketed him into the mainstream, and many other bands have tried to emulate its sound in years past, often to no avail. Instead of epic and earnest, Junk sees Gonzalez heading in the exact opposite direction, writing an album of small-scale, winkingly ironic riffs on the 70’s and 80’s material he usual mines for inspiration. Apparently influenced by soft rock, and the theme music for Punky Brewster, Junk is a deeply silly, undeniably cheesy album of varied quality, seemingly by design.
Lead single Do It, Try It begins with bouncing, jaunty piano which sounds straight out of an unfashionable 80’s pop song (the slap bass doesn’t help), but in the chorus, Gonzalez’s signature huge synthesisers and drums enter the mix, and help the track become a danceable earworm. Go! succeeds largely on the charisma of guest singer Mai Lan, whose chorus melody is effortlessly catchy, and blends elegantly with the synth pads Gonzalez deploys throughout the track. The guitar in the pre-chorus sounds exceedingly cheesy, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s silly, but fun, and that seems to be the main thing Gonzalez wants to accomplish.
Some tracks are less successful, however, like the instrumental track Moon Crystal. It’s evidently designed to sound like the credits song from a sitcom from the 80’s, and whilst this is a conceptual interesting idea, it’s quite dull to actually listen to, with little in the way of dynamics or development, always defaulting back to the same keyboard riff, over and over. Much of the second half of the album exists in this uncomfortable space between something being ironically entertaining, and actually enjoyable to listen to. Tracks like Road Blaster and Atlantique Sud don’t have the melodies to justify their pastiche, and they cause the back-half of the album to feel like something of a slog.
However, the tracks that do succeed are exceptional. For the Kids exists largely as a showcase for the gorgeous voice of Susanne Sundfør, and she manages to ground the track’s outsized saxophones in a certain humanity. Solitude felt relatively unremarkable as a single, but as the centrepiece of the album, its longer running time and slow burn into a string-filled climax is dramatic and deeply satisfying.
Whether or not one enjoys Junk will depend entirely on the listener’s opinion of the validity of Gonzalez’s source material, and their tolerance for irony. If you cannot stand cheese and silliness, then Junk isn’t for you, but if you allow yourself to get lost in its soundscapes, and most of all, appreciate it for the absurd fun that it is, then Gonzalez has crafted another solid entry in his renowned canon.