Sonic dumpster-diving with Anthony Gonzales
by Jericho Cerrona
If Fuller House, the latest in a line of misguided nostalgia baths streaming right now on Netflix is any indication, a time-hopping portal has opened within the nexus of the universe, producing ungainly mutilations from the childhood of those raised on TGIF and Super Mario World. It's a strange place we've found ourselves where capturing and then reconfiguring the pop zeitgeist seems to be the main obsession for musicians these days. Kevin Parker tried this on his last record Currents; a vanilla white guy dance rager in which guitars were curiously absent, and then there was that Neon Indian LP from last year where Alan Palomo did his best George Clinton by way of Prince impersonation. More crucially, if anyone has really been paying attention, Ariel Pink has been trolling 80s kitsch and soft rock conventions for nearly two decades, but that hasn't stopped Anthony Gonzales from trying his own variation on the nostalgia game. Though Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was an arty synth-pop juggernaut in which no corner of bombast was left unturned, Junk is what happens when Gonzales rummages through his childhood attic turning one kid's trash into another adult's treasure.
Likely to divide diehard fans and baffle the rest, Junk is full-on pastiche refined through keen attention to production values. It purposefully dabbles in the most uncool of 70s/80s fads; corny ballads, smooth saxophones, TV theme show interludes, airless guitar solos and pop-funk, but does so with its tongue firmly in the garbage bin. This may be one way of Gonzales retooling his approach to managing expectations. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was in many ways the zenith of M83's signature sound; huge synths, huge production, and huge running time. It was also a case of too much of a good thing; a self-indulgent double LP which sprawled in all the wrong ways. On the other hand, Junk announces itself as kitsch right from the outset with that warped Sesame Street meets Punky Brewster album cover, and then makes good on that disclaimer over the course of 15 tracks.
Intentionally moving away from the idea of a record as experience, Gonzales makes each song a singular creation of retro schmaltz. Sometimes, like on opener "Do It, Try It", with it's slap bass, cheesy analog keyboards, and chipmunk-tuned vocals, the effect is annoyingly contrived. Elsewhere, though, such as the warbly French-electro gem "Bibi The Dog" and Blondie-esque 80s groove-heavy "Laser Gun", he hits on something uniquely enjoyable. The lack of irony is also noteworthy here. Though the album has been designed and produced in much the same meticulous manner as M83's previous outings, there isn't the sense that Gonzales and collaborator Justin Meldal-Johnsen are mocking the outdated musical styles they're employing here. Instead, everything is more or less played straight. For example, the sultry 80s-style ballad "For the Kids" feels like something Bette Midler might have birthed, but the tunes' overt sentimentality; soaring strings, soft drums, and twinkling piano, never feels condescending. Somehow, Gonzales and company manage to take their obsessions with decades-old pop culture detritus and give it a fresh coat of sonic paint. It's also nice to hear new M83 vocalist Mai Lan getting to strut her stuff here, particularly on the rumbling, saxophone-heavy rave-up "Go" and album highlight "Laser Gun." However, the moments where Gonzales provides vocal duties are the least successful, such as the rather embarrassing Phil Collins homage "Time Wind" and dorky R &B dance-pop cut "Walkaway Blues", which sounds like Bruno Mars stuck in a 80s time warp.
As an appropriation of 70/80s excess and the notion of music as a disposable medium, Junk is an intriguing about-face for M83. With the new-found appreciation for sub-genres like smooth jazz, soft rock, disco, and AM Radio dial cheese making their way into more mainstream quarters, Gonzales has hit upon the zeitgeist in a way that feels germane. However, while this new direction is surprising on a surface level, the push toward retro-expressionism as a means for understanding the bizarre place we've arrived at culturally means that Junk is actually a few years behind the curve. Had this record come out in, say, 2010, Gonzales would likely be heralded as a daft revivalist trolling camp and kitsch for unexpectedly artful purposes. In 2016, though, this left turn doesn't exactly feel like a left turn. It feels like just the kind of thing an artist who has been able to break into the mainstream with a series of shoegaze/ synth-pop epics would do in order to mix things up.
Tackiness reigns. Flamboyant excess dominates. Nostalgia is king. Hell, there's even a keytar solo on this thing. If anything, Junk is something to be combed through much like the now 36-year-old Gonzales probably did while opening up those childhood boxes of cassette tapes and CDs. If the overt lameness of pop's past conventions have now come back into the realm of unapologetic cool, then Gonzales has used this self-aware trend to forgo his usual preoccupation with the "Big Ideas" (there's no wrestling with man's place in the universe here), and just made some music. Junky music. Corny music. Music for the sake of music.