Anthony Gonzalez is no attention seeker. That explains his decision to bring in a whole host of guest artists for JUNK, his first album under the M83 moniker in five years. It is a brave move, for the ambitious Hurry Up We’re Dreaming bought him all sorts of acclaim in 2011, not least for lead singles Midnight City, Steve McQueen and Intro. The high profile tours he embarked upon afterwards were the icing on the cake.
Yet Gonzalez has at least two sides to his musical personality, and although he prides himself on the big, cinematic sweep that album offered, there a private side that wants to remain in the background, letting his guests and collaborators get to work. That is very much the case on JUNK, where Steve Vai, Beck and Susanne Sundfør, among others, ply their musical wares for the cause.
M83 has always been an intriguing work in progress, a shape shifting musical presence able to work in a little pastiche to boost the overall sound, and yet Gonzalez’ work remains instantly, recognisably his. He pulls off the same trick here, for JUNK, while mining some of his favourite 1980s sounds and musical trends, still sounds as though it were made yesterday. (Either that, or it reflects just how retro we like our pop these days!)
Do It, Try It gets proceedings off to a strong start. Powered by the piano of Jeff Babko, it conjures up an intoxicating cocktail of early 1990s house and power funk from the 1980s, planting a sure foundation. Go! picks up the baton of its upward facing mood, with a great deadpan vocal from Mai Lan, though there are signs of a slowing in tempo. That is until Steve Vai’s big moment arrives, the virtuoso rock guitarist powering through a solo that soars and then dips like an enormous eagle, riding the musical thermals with consummate ease. Gonzalez’ love for a bit of cheese is alive and well.
The brief slowing in tempo is an indication of what to expect from the album’s core, and here Gonzalez’ fondness for bigger structures proves his Achilles heel. For enjoyable as JUNK is, it has a major slump in the middle, where the lure of West Coast yacht-rock is too much for him to resist. That is not to say it is musically poor – it isn’t – but the lag in tempo, while providing a contrast to the opening tracks, introduces too much down time for the listener. For The Kids and Solitude are the main culprits here, the latter marked by exquisite orchestration, slightly mournful vocals and big keyboard solo – and a big finish – but turning the mood ultimately melancholic.
JUNK does rally, however, and in Road Blaster Gonzalez delivers a beauty. Fans of Midnight City will be glad to welcome back the saxophone solo – this one a bit less overblown – but it is a fine triple time song that fuses the key M83 elements, being alternately dreamy, fantasy-fuelled and extremely uplifting. It could be easily be a long lost song imported from 1980s California.
Having got the album back on track, another guest, Beck, throws another curveball with his vocal on Time Wind. It is a good fit, as Gonzalez’ ambling beat opens out into a beautifully layered chorus, the west coast sunshine once again asserting its presence.
For M83 cannot help but be positive. It is in Anthony Gonzalez’ veins to make pop music where the listener will swoon, dream and ultimately smile. Despite the mournful lag in the middle of JUNK, that is what he does once again here – in his own inimitable way.