Has anyone out there played the Perfect Strangers video game? Before it starts, you’re asked to type in a dream: “Win the Nobel Peace Prize.” “Become a famous actor.” “Turn in this album review on time.” It can be anything. Then, right when that city-gazing harmonica from the show’s theme song kicks in, you control an avatar of Balki Bartokomous as he makes his way from Mypos to Chicago, trying to nab as many digitized stars as he can along the way. If you manage to pick them all up, the text of your dream stays untouched, thus hopefully making it a reality some day. But for every star you miss, the words get slightly jumbled, taking you farther away from your goal.
Even though the game takes less than two minutes to complete, it has a lot in common with M83’s latest album, Junk. Each work of art is goofy, positive, and aesthetically driven by both outer space and 1980s television. Anthony Gonzalez has been upfront about wanting to achieve the same effect as various sitcom themes from the Reagan era, so much that the font on the album cover is identical to the title cards of Punky Brewster. But in its own odd little way, the Perfect Strangers game ends up being more subversive than Junk, taking something nostalgic and altering it so that the journey both informs and is informed by the audience’s own experiences. It’s a riff — albeit a slight and mostly silly riff — but a riff nonetheless.
Junk, on the other hand, isn’t much of a riff at all. The album rarely manages to break free of its ’80s-lite inspiration, its tricks little more than emulations — not innovations — of the source material: the “Baker Street” sax throughout, the nonsensically optimistic lyrics cribbed from any number of Jesse Frederick theme songs, the harmonica on closer “Sunday Night 1987” that sounds exactly like the harmonica on “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now”.
The biggest instance of Gonzalez choosing to ape rather than elaborate arrives in what feels like the album’s retro-minded centerpiece, “Moon Crystal”. Here, he manages to assemble every trope of a vintage sitcom intro into one two-and-a-half minute instrumental, from automated strings and french horn to the department store keyboard tone that might as well be dubbed “Miller-Boyett” on the Casio menu. I suppose that allows him to complete his mission of reaching the musical “passion” of shows like Who’s the Boss?. But since he doesn’t add anything new, since he doesn’t build upon, critique, or satirize a slice of cheese that’s been holed through many times over, one can’t help but wonder, why not just actually listen to the opening of Who’s the Boss?
The same problem bogs down the following track, “For the Kids”, which feels reminiscent of the ubiquitous R&B ballad that once got tacked on to the end credits of every animated children’s movie. But once again, the gooey synths, Susanne Sundfør’s earnest vocals, and what sounds like Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s daughter (who gave “Raconte-Moi une Histoire” its sense of wonder and innocence on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming), do little to improve upon the adult contemporary rendition of “Somewhere Out There” or even that song from The Secret of NIMH. Similarly, “The Wizard”, “Ludivine”, and “Tension” are brief interludes that would fit in a little too well on an outdated infomercial or teen PSA. Then later on, a cameo from Beck gets smothered on “Time Wind”, never given the chance to transport the arrangement out of the derelict shopping mall where it sounds most at home.
To his credit, Gonzalez fares better earlier on in the runtime, with a handful of songs that come off as his versions of cloying ’80s music rather than his imitations of cloying ’80s music. Opener and first single “Do It, Try It” stays propulsive thanks to a foundation of model-runway piano, and “Go!’ is sonically indulgent in its maximalism, revealing a new flourish with each listen. When counting down to a blastoff of electronic handclaps and funk guitar, Mai Lan (who contributes guest vocals to several tracks) sings as a space-station computer come to life, cold in her pragmatism yet committed to narrating an intergalactic dance party.
But after the chilly groove of “Walkway Blues” and the detached canine adventure of “Bibi the Dog”, “Moon Crystal” oozes over Junk like tree sap, encasing the album in amber and keeping it forever stuck in the past. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming also turned to nostalgia as its primary motif, but unlike Junk, it used Gonzalez’s childhood to explore his (and therefore the listener’s) insecurities, flaws, dreams, disappointments, and memories. It tackled nostalgia from a place that was cerebral and cinematic while still being a lot of fun, and in doing so, wondered if it was possible to truly capture one’s childhood at all. On Junk, Gonzalez answers that question. It is possible to commodify nostalgia, but unless you have something unique to say about it, it’s no better than the Fry Kids and gummy cheeseburger on the cover: wacky and colorful, but also filled with empty calories.
Essential Tracks: “Do It, Try It,” “Go!”