Midway through M83's new album, Junk, during "The Wizard," the sheen that has topped so much of the French retroist's gleaming homages to soft rock and old pop momentarily disappears. Guided by pillowed beats that land like exploding cotton balls, the song's distorted synths ease out a swooning melody and, occasionally, suggest lasers firing in a round of Galaga.
This is an opportunity for Junk to catch its breath from its churn of fragmented pop tropes and its generally glittering coating to wash off, albeit briefly. The shininess returns only a minute later, causing the hazy moment to recede like some snooze-alarm dream, where the particulars are just clear enough to recall later in the day.
According to M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez, Junk's title is a glum statement on how music is consumed, an acknowledgement that this album will be heard in pieces. "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," Gonzalez told Pitchfork.
Indeed, Junk is designed for the shuffle age; while it works as a whole, it does so because of its stylistic leapfrogging, true to the band's core bigger-better-more aesthetic. "Go!" opens with breeze-borne sax and climaxes with a solo by guitar god Steve Vai. The bell-clear soprano of Norwegian singer-composer Susanne Sundfør adds pathos to the glittering "For the Kids," while "Moon Crystal" synthesizes slicked-back seventies instrumentals into a chilled-out rocket ride. Taken together, all these pieces reflect the strenuous aesthetic of someone repurposing the past for a blinding present.
The verve of Junk's "Road Blister," for instance," recalls a strident new wave hit, while the Beck-assisted "Time Wind" suggests smooth-jazz stations that used to get played in late-night cabs, bass turned way up. From the gentle rise of opening track "Do It, Try It" through the blissed-out late-album song "Ludivine," Junk is the soundtrack of an evening where all things seem possible.
"What's played in the mainstream is just awful. It makes me want to puke," Gonzales has said. "Whereas what was playing in the eighties was actually really good, really thought-out music."
Gonzalez's gripe may smack of whippersnapper condescension, but there's an admirable romanticism about his ideology, too. He's an insatiably curious scholar of pop and its building blocks, hoping that anyone within earshot of Junk will know just how much potential lurks within its aged tools.
This article appeared in print with the headline "For the Kids"