One of my favorite recent commercials was released by the audio company Bose last fall. Two beautiful teenagers — one looks a little like Saoirse Ronan — are tiptoeing toward their first kiss in a well-appointed sunroom. Their romance is taking flight underneath a twilit, drifting electro-acoustic ballad, and their lips are just about to meet when the music suddenly cuts out. It’s been replaced by Sharon, Lois & Bram’s rendition of "Skinnamarink," a modern children’s classic; someone’s dad is lurking in an adjacent room, watching like a hawk and controlling the speakers from a tablet.
You’re supposed to come away impressed by the quality of the sound and the robustness of the wireless controls, but it’s the splendor of the first song you can’t shake. It makes the first kiss feel as high-stakes and improbable as your own. The song is M83’s "Wait," one of the many highlights on the band’s mammoth 2011 double LP Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. And if you’re looking for a reason to indict the band’s befuddling new album Junk, this is a decent one: it has 15 songs, and almost all of them hew closer to Sharon, Lois & Bram than the teenage make-out anthem described above.
Junk is the first M83 album in half a decade, and it’s jarring in terms of both scale and gravity. It’s a deeply silly, featherweight album, one that mostly lacks the sense of drama that’s linked all of Anthony Gonzalez’ work since the early 2000s. He’s held a position as one of music's leading purveyors of grandeur since 2003, the year he released Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts. That album’s bit-crushed shoegaze pulled from My Bloody Valentine and Brian Eno alike, and it didn’t have much regard for clarity or structure. It was music meant to pulverize you, to drown you. (The joy you can derive from hearing it increases exponentially with volume.) 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us cleaned up the sound, shone a light on Gonzalez’ overwrought teenage poetry, and maintained the scale; three years later, Saturdays = Youth recast him as a new wave romantic, one with songwriting chops that held up to both increased fidelity and a wider audience.
'Midnight City' turned Gonzalez into a minor star
All of that slow growth culminated in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and "Midnight City," its comet of a lead single. If "Midnight City" sounds a little dated now, it’s only because so many other musicians have spent the last five years emulating its fusion of pop’s concision and EDM’s dynamics. You can hear the vestiges of it in Taylor Swift’s 1989, an album that mines the same time period for inspiration; you can hear it all over The 1975’s excellent new album, slathered in glittering synths and riotous sax. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was bolder and more ambitious than everything around it, and it turned Gonzalez into a minor star. And when he took his first misstep in over a decade a few years later, it still made sense within his larger career trajectory: he soundtracked Oblivion, a sci-fi-starring vehicle for Tom Cruise. He shot for the moon, missed, and landed among the stars.
Even as it explored a wide variety of sounds, Gonzalez’ music remained both serious and emotionally earnest. If he had a mission statement, it was tucked within "Graveyard Girl," the heart of Saturdays = Youth: "I’m 15 years old, and I feel it’s already too late to live. Don’t you?" (Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has "Raconte-Moi Une Histoire," a blippy children’s song about a magical frog.) Every song sought to capture that kind of teenage desperation from a different angle; Junk thoroughly rejects it in favor of winking, slavish recreation. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming sounded like someone remembering what it meant to look forward; Junk sounds like someone looking back.
Gonzalez has spoken at length about the album’s unfashionable source material: soft rock, theatrical metal, chintzy disco, theme songs for shows like Punky Brewster. Its closest cousin is Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, another album that paid explicit tribute to what its band members saw as a musical Golden Age. Junk can match that album’s craftsmanship and polish, but it lacks its generosity. It feels more like a rebuttal.
"What's played in the mainstream... makes me want to puke"
When Daft Punk opened their album with a song called "Give Life Back to Music," you could feel it coming from the bottom of their robot hearts. Junk too often feels like Gonzalez’ bid to reanimate a corpse. It’s rooted in anger, not appreciation. "What’s played in the mainstream is just awful, it makes me want to puke," Gonzalez told Pitchfork. "Whereas what was playing in the ‘80s was actually really good, really thought-out music… There were so many new horizons then, so many ways to come up with a really strong and original identity. Nowadays, everything has already been done before. I truly believe that."
Junk still has lovely moments, even if nothing on the album matches the energy or intensity of Gonzalez’ earlier work by design. Lead single "Do It, Try It" and "Go!" come the closest to matching the urgency of songs like "Kim & Jessie" and "Steve McQueen," though listening to them feels a little like drinking orange Gatorade when you could just be eating an orange. The album’s ballads do the best job of convincing you Gonzalez’ heart is in this music, and they’re all stunning. "For the Kids" is a dewy showcase for the Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør, one that’s meant for a Very Special Episode of ‘80s TV; "Solitude" is a sweeping Bond-lite epic bearing the mark of Gonzalez’ cinematic dalliances. "Atlantique Sud" is a tender French duet you can imagine in Tobias Jesso Jr.’s hands.
But all of these songs function better in isolation. When you take in all of Junk in one sitting — the goofy interludes, the larks like "Moon Crystal," the layers and layers of dorky keyboards and slap bass — it all just starts to feel like one giant piss take, a joke being delivered by a talented guy who’s feeling bored and oddly disillusioned. That hollow, sour sensation does more to compromise Junk than all of its dorky sounds and references put together.
Stick around as long as M83 has, and you enter into an unspoken contract with your audience. Gonzalez’ contract had a lot of terms: he’d go big or go home. He’d give you songs big enough and bold enough to suit the biggest moments in your young life. He’d recognize the value of embracing sentiment, even when it seemed melodramatic. He’d take this — making music — just as seriously as the teens in that commercial taking a leap of faith. Despite his protestation to the contrary, Junk is unconvincing. I can’t figure out whether it’s just as earnest as everything he’s ever done or a convoluted way of hitting the reset button, and that’s a bummer: M83 was the last band I ever thought I’d accuse of cynicism.