Rainbows in the Dark: M83 – “Junk”

If you were alive and conscious throughout the year 2011, chances are, at some point or another, you heard the song “Midnight City” — an infectious dream pop tune from French musician Anthony Gonzalez (a.k.a. M83) that captured the wonder and adventure of his move to Los Angeles. It was one of the best songs of the year, from one of the best albums of the year, and it instantly set up a microscope over Gonzalez’s future output. From a critical standpoint, whatever follow-up material might surface down the road was preemptively put on watch.

Setting aside his soundtrack to the 2013 film, Oblivion, that follow up finally arrived in April 2016, in the form of M83’s seventh studio album, Junk. So how’d the thing hold up under the weight of gargantuan expectations? 

Initially, Junk appeared to live up to its name. Just 55 minutes in length, it somehow felt longer than its 73-minute, double-album predecessor. On top of that, the album’s dominant sonic influence — ’70s and ’80s TV theme music, right down to the Punky Brewster-esque font on the cover — almost seemed to nullify the project’s recurring themes of youth and wistful reminiscence. Then, there was this quote Gonzalez gave to Pitchfork for a March feature:

“This is how people listen to music nowadays: They’re just gonna pick certain songs they like—one, two, if you’re lucky—and trash the rest. All else becomes junk.” (Pitchfork)

Agree or disagree with that statement as you will — Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming would appear to contradict it pretty blatantly — but at first, Junk felt like an attempt by Gonzalez to prove his own point. The thing had its moments — all M83 albums do — but as a whole, it felt like a lesser product than its predecessors.

But then, something clicked.

It wasn’t until a couple of months later, but suddenly, something about those hokey synth parts started to become kind of endearing. Suddenly, Gonzalez’s wide range of guest spots — from a Beck vocal performance on “Time Wind” to a Steve Vai guitar solo on “Go!” — started coming off less as missed opportunities and more as enormous boosts to an album that, maybe, actually, didn’t even need them to stand up on its own. (French singer Mai Lan is the exception here; she remains absolutely essential to the tunes she appears on — from the funky, ethereal disco of “Bibi the Dog” to the piano-driven singalong “Laser Gun.”)

Obvious standouts like “Bibi” and “Road Blaster” held their positions through all this, but the others started to make pretty convincing cases for themselves, too — “Walkway Blues,” “Solitude,” hell, even the instrumental interlude tracks like “Tension.” Junk‘s not an album full of anthems like “Midnight City,” but it’s loaded with terrific, role-playing tunes like these, each of which contributes mightily to its overall flow. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, by leaps, bounds and trips through time and space.

After casually dismissing this album a couple of listens in, I’m ready to eat crow: Junk‘s become one of my favorite non-metal releases of the year. The key is to approach it with the right mindset; if you do, you’ll see there’s a lot to love about it.

Sorry, I’m still not a fan of “Do It, Try It,” though.

Keep it heavy,

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