It’s been nearly half a decade since M83 breathed new life into the often-maligned saxophone solo on the now-classic track “Midnight City.” On “Go!” the third single released from new album Junk, M83 has done the same for another rock relic, the guitar solo. With flashy, archetypal axeman Steve Vai on the strings “Go!” builds to the kind of climax you don’t hear anymore, and the effect is of giddy transcendence.
On Junk, M83’s easily identifiable influences erode the cultural currency of what is generally considered cool. This record takes on influences like Electric Light Orchestra on the gleeful lead single “Do It, Try It,” ABBA on the wistful “Time Wind” and Hall & Oates on “Road Blaster,” which is propelled by some rubbery horns – the kind of artists who don’t exactly impart street cred on their listeners.
But this is all done without irony. It’s worth asking whether M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez even knows the meaning of the word. The Frenchman has made something that sounds genuine and heartfelt even while mining territory that’s often considered to be contrived and pandering by its very nature. It’s hard to dismiss music that is this openly optimistic and positive. Throughout there is a kind of spiritual largesse, with Gonzalez as the benefactor.
In the time since the last M83 album, the double pop opus Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming came out, Gonzalez has been busy, most notably composing the soundtrack for Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi film Oblivion, and for his brother Yann’s erotic drama You and the Night. This soundtrack work has carried over into Junk, giving it a beautiful weightlessness – like a jaunt through the upper atmosphere – that stops its more precious moments from sounding stodgy.
Of course, to many people’s ears, Junk is going to seem insufferably twee, from the reject Sesame Street characters and childish typeface of the cover onwards. It’s certainly true that its theatricality and enormous range sometimes make it sound more like a musical theatre revue than a cohesive album. Some tracks, such as the chintzy instrumentals “Moon Crystal” and “The Wizard”, feel like filler, and are whipped away in the breeze before they can make an impression.
However, Junk still keeps you attentive and guessing what will happen next, partially because Gonzalez is very willing to offer the spotlight to other performers. Repeat appearances from vocalist Mai Lan add fun and sultriness to the album, particularly the joyful “Laser Gun.” Elsewhere, the slinky “Walkway Blues,” is the first ever songwriting and lead vocal contribution of Jordan Lawlor, who was recruited through a crowd-sourced audition in 2011, and contributions from Norwegian singer Susanne Sundfør and American alt-rock icon Beck appear on the beautiful ballad “For the Kids” and the aforementioned “Time Wind” respectively.
As the gentle “Sunday Night 1987” closes the album, you’re sure to feel some strong emotions rumbling in the pit of your stomach. Junk has its flaws, but you will still find yourself caught up in its orbit. Without any self-consciousness or concessions to expectations, M83 have delivered one of the most beguiling and likeable pop albums of the year. Perhaps if it were trimmed of its excesses a bit, this misty-eyed and loving embrace of a record could have been perfect.
Junk is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats. M83 are performing live at Sydney's Enmore Theatre on Monday May 16.