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Review: M83’s Anthony Gonzalez Finds His Past, Present, and Future Self’s Happy Place on ‘Junk’

<> at Hammerstein Ballroom on October 3, 2012 in New York City.
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: April 08, 2016
Label: Mute

The closest we may ever come to hearing Anthony Gonzalez’s high-school band, My Violent Wish — unless he decides to release his old demos — is “*,” a stutter-stop yowler on 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. Unlike the majority of M83‘s pre-Saturdays=Youth post-rock excavations, it’s reminiscent of Sonic Youth and Blonde Redhead’s blasts of hair-curling distortion, which the French auteur cites as his 17-year-old self’s primary inspirations. It also might be the closest we’ll ever come to experiencing the perennially tortured artist at his happiest, and least jaded. (Except for when he went to Joshua Tree, because you can’t go there and not have an amazing time and/or personal revelation.) Describing his time in My Violent Wish as “super fun,” Gonzalez said in a 2014 interview, from when M83’s earliest albums were reissued, “It was an amazing period of our lives, being teenagers and free and excited about everything.”

Fast-forward to this year, when Gonzalez released “Do It, Try It,” the wild first single from his seventh studio LP, Junk, perplexing those who expected M83’s next album to be another nostalgia-fueled rocket ship through sonic cinematography. It’s definitely “super fun,” an Auto-Tuned jaunt over high-stepping piano chords, even though Gonzalez has said this album’s creative freedom came from a period of severe disillusionment: with Los Angeles life, with scoring 2013’s Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, with his band’s tendency toward grandiose concept albums.

In another interview published shortly after the single’s release, he spoke to how people would likely digest and spit out the 15-track effort: “They’re just gonna pick certain songs they like — one, two, if you’re lucky — and trash the rest. All else becomes junk.” He’s definitely subtweeting those who only know M83 for Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming‘s saxophone spree “Midnight City” from 2011; that kind of confrontational attitude is certainly challenging, and doesn’t always look good on Junk. There are some poignant moments on the record, like the keening falsettos on “Do It, Try It” and “Solitude,” a downtempo orchestral number in the middle of the record that’s simply gorgeous, all aching strings and tumbling pianos — until the insane keytar solo.

That part actually does fit into the song, but elsewhere on Junk such homages are so outlandish they sound almost ironic, as if Gonzalez isn’t so serious about his music. “Moon Castle” is simply ridiculous, a pastiche of what sound like rejected instrumentals for the theme songs to Family Ties and Who’s the Boss, as written by Air Supply. That’s the idea, he says; the 36-year-old loves Punky Brewster. And part of the reason it’s so jarring is we’re used to Gonzalez exploring our nostalgic fantasies, for an era soundtracked by the pillowy, gossamer textures of post-shoegaze dream pop. Elsewhere that sort of cheese goes down much more smoothly: On “Go!,” new M83 vocalist Mai Lan’s lilting cadence settles like a silk sheet over a galloping rhythm section, chiming synthesizers, and those saxophones that soundtracked a million commercials for luxury items.

They say good artists borrow and great artists steal, but here Gonzalez does neither — his heart doesn’t seem to be in the heist anymore. “Atlantique Sud” sure sounds nice, with its gently enunciated French lyrics and Madman Across the Water-esque piano bars, but it floats out of consciousness as quickly as ascending the escalator to another department-store floor. Short instrumental “Ludivine” wouldn’t be out of place on 2014’s You and the NightGonzalez and his brother’s accompaniment to a Francophone erotic art film, but it’s just not enough on its own, even as an interlude. By the time the fragrant harmonica wails and torpid horns of “Sunday Night 1987” roll up to the front door in braces and a boutonniere, it’s too late. We’ve already finished going through the yearbook.