And now for an obligatory Ryuichi Sakamoto/Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) post. This a worthwhile Sakamoto solo-album from 1986 that’s often overlooked – forgivable given his massive discography. Despite having a unifying conceptual focus on the avant-garde/facist Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th century [which once tried to abolish pasta] this album somehow manages to be all over the place. But this is why I like this record, and why I love Sakamoto.
Who else on earth would throw together musique concrete, needless 80s guitar solos, operatic arias, R&B stylings, and techno-pop? More importantly, who would then have the audacity to just drop a speech synthesis program reading an encyclopaedia entry on Futurism into the middle of a song? Sakamoto that’s who.
I sometimes see myself as a bigger fan of Haruomi Hosono’s solo works of this period because he never does wrong, even when he tends to be more predictable. But what I like about Sakamoto’s solo work is its sheer ecclectism, iconoclasm, and musical risk-taking. Whether he’s literally so ahead of the curve that he incidentally invents electro as a genre on B-2 Unit (1980), makes medieval synth-pop with Danceries in 1983, or creates a beautiful album of sampler-heavy “4th World Music” on Esperanto (1985), Sakamoto was always trying something new and pushing himself outside his comfort-zone.
There are a lot of memorable moments on the record. “Daikoukai” is a smooth diet-coke take on Naughty boys-era YMO, “Variety Show” is a dramatic and metallic sampler frenzy, and “G.T. II” is a 1980s funk romp that will be stuck in your head for a while. But the song that both puzzles and entices me the most is “Ballet Mécanique.” It starts off with a beautiful sound-collage of camera noises, but then suddenly breaks into a R&B vocalist Sakamoto hired to sing lyrics so corny they’re literally non-sensical:
“When I look out of my window, all I ever see is cloudy grey-skies, when you look into your mirror, how d’you think you’re ever going to see me. Look into my eyes”
It must have been a bad translation or something. But then Sakamoto comes on singing the exact same cheese in Japanese (a language I can’t understand) and the song immediately becomes consumable again. I guess this points to something problematic with my/our collective fascination with Japanese music from the 1980s that would sound hollow to those who can understand the language? And also with the frequent appropriation of R&B singers by Japanese pop musicians of the period?