While spring break this year has proven to be chilly for many up north, Japanese artist Ryuichi Sakamoto has used his 2017 album Async to warm up the stage and become the “easy-listening” trend of today. Although mostly well-known for his instrumental music, Ryuichi Sakamoto is also a composer, singer, record producer, writer, dancer, actor and activist based in New York City and Tokyo.
Ryuichi Sakamoto, an international icon recognized for his art since the 1970s, reconstructs his gloomy narrative of early postwar Japan and nihilistic humanity in the early twenty-first century; he does this through a a new series of “synth pop” – a subgenre of new wave music that first became prominent in the late 1970s and features the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument – and refined drama in his new genres of Bossa Nova, Opera and a futuristic take on world music.
In this Obscura edition, two reviews on two ‘obscurely’ different Sakamoto albums are discussed : A day in New York and Async.
A Day in New York
Released in mid 2003, A Day in New York received less publicity due to Sakamoto’s projects on his favorite genre of world music back at the time.
Jaques Morelenbaum, the other prominent collaborator on this album, a world renowned Brazilian cellist teamed up with Sakamoto as early as 1996 to begin structuring an album, celebrating bossa nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The music itself, combines uptone instrumental beats with a melancholic yet smooth voice for bossa nova. Sakamoto and his collaborators’ love for this genre shows in every piano note and every transition to a new song; starting with Desafinado and ending with Fotografia, Paula Morelenbaum, Jacques’ wife, sings throughout the entire album. With vocals as soft as hers, there is no doubt that Sakamoto would decide to use such loud yet calm instrumentals, balancing out the tranquility with overlapping dramatic effect.
Overall this album could be given a 10/10, however, the reason it won’t is because of the single voice throughout the album. It’s understandable that Sakamoto and Morelenbaum created this album for the purpose of honoring Antonio Carlos Jobim; however, I don’t see any diverse aspect of it. Although every piece contains transition, the album in itself feels like a repetition of the same song. Through the interpretation of someone else, that aspect might be viewed in a positive light. Personally, I think bossa nova should have more diverse pitches, rhythms and vocals – there’s much more to the genre than these eleven similar songs. Sakamoto’s album is far from perfect, however, if he attempted spreading a certain theme of melancholy and “jazz nightclub style” in Jobim’s music, he achieved it: 7/10.
Midway through 2017, Pitchfork stated that Async would be described by music connoisseurs as “a difficult album to understand.” I don’t believe that’s true. Soon after recovering from throat cancer in early 2017, Sakamoto produced his first solo album since 2009 that generally follows an unorthodox path in his style; there is neither accompaniment in jazz acoustics nor piano. It’s an art piece of synth pop and world.
When listening to the album for the first time, it confused me. The music didn’t sound right; it felt as if I was listening to an indie movie with no dialogue. That’s when the listener’s perspective comes into play – the confusion yet appreciation for this art gives the expression Sakamoto wants to leave on his fans. Given that he produced this after his battle with cancer, few may interpret this album to be an interpretation of his pain as well as confusion during the period of treatment.
In one of the songs, fullmoon, you have multiple voices in French, German, Russian, Mandarin and probably many more all whispering into your ear, while a soft piano plays in the background. It’s hard to understand, yet sometimes you occasionally hear the word “cancer” slowly slip out of the speaker’s’ mouth. This album, although confusing at first, is not hard to understand. There is an emotional aspect to this piece which ties together with Sakamoto’s form of recovery and reconnaissance back onto the music stage. The electric beats, the synthesizers accompanied with the piano and triangle, all come together to paint a piece of art; not something physical to see or touch, but one that makes you feel as if you’re in various settings. Although easy to understand where the theme of confusion and setting variety in his album derives from, every song is too inexplicably “weird” to describe not only the emotion you hear, but the emotion you feel.
Async feels too ethereal to the human ear and Pitchfork writers believe the same when explaining his more uplifting songs like garden or stakra. As a fan of synth pop and his artistic approach towards world music, Async receives a 10/10 on my scale.