The Post-Breakthrough Freakout album is a proud pop-music tradition, one that extends to just about every genre of music. Artists toil in obscurity for years, and then they suddenly find themselves way more famous than they thought they could ever be, and they don’t know how to handle it. Sometimes, they spend years actively deciding not to make anything new. Sometimes, they rush it. Most of the time, they move drastically away from whatever made them popular in the first place. Sometimes, these albums are great, and sometimes they’re terrible. In Utero is one, and so is To Pimp A Butterfly. The Age Of Adz. Return Of Saturn. The Idlewild soundtrack. Mechanical Animals. Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Radiohead have made something like three of these albums, while it’s entirely possible that every Kanye West album fits the category. Arcade Fire managed to get three albums in before making one, but Reflektor is absolutely theirs. Lauryn Hill still hasn’t made hers, but if she ever does, it’ll be the mother of all of them.
By the standards of these artists, M83 have never even gotten particularly famous. But listening to Junk, Anthony Gonzalez’s new one, it’s pretty clear that his project is way, way more popular than he ever envisioned. First in a duo with Nicolas Fromageau and then mostly-solo after Fromageau left, Gonzalez was plugging along for years, making epically sweeping ’80s-indebted electro-shoegaze music. His records always sounded grand, but it was theoretical arena music, not music that would ever fill an arena itself. (Gonzalez did play arenas opening for, like, the Killers, but opening-act duty is a different thing.) And then Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming happened — or, more accurately, “Midnight City” happened.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was a vast, expansive work, a double album that took years to record. And “Midnight City” was all its glories distilled into one single-length rocket blast. “Midnight City” is silly and overwhelming at the same time, ending in that soul-levitating screaming saxophone that felt classic the first time you heard it. The song made M83 into the sort of group where, all of a sudden, cousins and in-laws were asking me about them at family gatherings, which is the final rung an indie band can ascend to before it’s no longer an indie band. And after it was out in the world, I get the sense that Gonzalez didn’t know what to do. He tried making good on the cinematic qualities of his music by scoring actual cinematic works, but Oblivion, the first movie he scored, turned out to be pretty bad, and the process didn’t much agree with him. He went into tinker mode. And five years after Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Junk is the end result — a Post-Breakthrough Freakout album of the highest order.
M83 have always trafficked in majesty and mystery, so it was a bit of a surprise to see that they’d basically put some Fry Guys on the cover of Junk, that they’d named it Junk, and that first single “Do It, Try It” had all these bold splashes of Chicago-house piano and slap-bass. “Do It, Try It” has some of the old M83 bombast, but it’s also a song that luxuriates in its own cheese. As far as the album is concerned, it’s merely the tip of the cheeseburg. “Walkway Blues” attempts to sound like Random Access Memories-era Daft Punk attempting to sound like Sade. The instrumental “Moon Crystal” could serve as the soundtrack for a falling-in-love montage from a really, really bad ’70s movie. “Laser Gun” has Go! Team-style cheerleader chants and sci-fi keyboards and Blues Brothers horn-honks. Where the band has always taken inspiration from stuff like John Hughes soundtracks or the sort of Survivor-esque songs that scored training montages in ’80s sports movies, Junk dives even deeper into the disrespected genres of the past. It’s steeped in ’70s AM gold and ’80s soft rock. Parts of the album sound like Richard Marx. Other parts sound like the Carpenters. It’s a lot to take in.
The Post-Breakthrough Freakout album that Junk most closely resembles is another one from a group that was, in the grand scheme of things, not overwhelmingly popular. It’s also another follow-up to a beloved bachelor-pad makeout soundtrack, from another atmospheric, retro-inclined French electronic pop outfit, with another Beck guest spot. I’m talking about 10,000 Hz Legend, the 2001 Moon Safari follow-up from the duo Air. That album ditched its predecessor’s luxuriant burble for sci-fi prog frippery, and it stalled Air’s momentum and confused a lot of the duo’s fans. I expect something similar to happen with Junk. But it won’t happen to such an extreme extent, because Junk is a better album than 10,000 Hz Legend, and because it still has more of the things that made people like M83 in the first place.
“Road Blaster,” for example is the sort of surging, overwhelming synth-rock that Gonzalez can seemingly make in his sleep, except that this one has some riotous horn stabs in with all the reaching-into-infinity synth-whooshes. “Atlantique Sud” sounds nothing like old M83, but it’s lovely in its own right, with Gonzalez and Mai Lan Chapiron singing a starry-eyed, lovestruck duet over stacked-high strings. (It’s usually a good thing when Gonzalez and his collaborators sing in French, as they do frequently on Junk. When their lyrics are in English, we get stuff like, “People love me, though / I’m their new Rambo.”) “For The Kids” is a crushingly pretty soft-rock ballad and a powerful showcase for the Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør. And the six-minute early single “Solitude,” which faded into the background when I first heard it as a standalone song, absolutely devastates in the context of the album. Its strings are vast, suffocating, and beautiful, and Gonzalez gives them plenty of room to breath, opting not to sing for much of the song. When those strings and the progged-out keyboard noodles are going back and forth, it reminds me of one of the long instrumental passages from some old Isaac Hayes masterpiece.
So there are plenty of things to like about Junk. But Gonzalez has always excelled at one thing. His music, in the past, has made the mundane world around us feel strange and beautiful. A trip to the grocery store to buy chili powder felt like an epic quest into the heart of the sun if you had Saturdays = Youth on your headphones. Junk is an album that consciously refuses to serve that function, and it suffers for it. Gonzalez has instead made something sillier and weirder, something that digs in the refuse pile of pop history — no coincidence that he called it Junk — and finds a few fun toys to play with. Sometimes, these experiments work. Just as often, they don’t. And a whole lot of people are going to be left wondering what the fuck Gonzalez was thinking. Maybe that was the whole goal. But as goals go, that’s not a particularly admirable one.
Junk is out 4/8 on Mute. Stream it below as a YouTube playlist.