The Only-Music Review Of Perfume’s JPN
The following only deals with Perfume within the context of Perfume – no mentions of outside artists, or outside distractions. Stay tuned for part two, which will tackle those issues.
The easiest knock against JPN is that it barely constitutes a new album, more of a glorified compilation disc given the fact nine of the 14 songs here were released as singles over the last year and a half. Dismiss “The Opening” as simply an opening and that leaves only four new tracks from Japan’s premier techno-pop trio. Even the hardcore types populating Perfume message boards wish for more fresh material, seeing as they already own all these singles and are essentially paying $30 for a quartet of tunes they haven’t heard.
Yet two thoughts make me view this complaint as silly. First, Perfume are a big, popular J-Pop act and not every Japanese person is an obsessive shut-in ordering 7,000 copies of the latest pop single to boost their imaginary girlfriend’s sales. Nope, they are ordinary people who probably buy like three or four new CDs a year, and Perfume might as well be one of them so naturally it is a collection of material released over the past year they’ve heard on TV but would also like to play in the car.
Second, and more convincing to me, is that these singles are strong. I’ve written about nearly every track on JPN at some point starting in 2010 which is why scribbling this seems sorta difficult – I’ve already gushed about or gnashed my teeth at the bulk of this record, and just seeing the tracklisting for the first time convinced me I could write the majority of this review back in October. This series of six (!) pages probably work better than the following sentences, as those see me reacting to each new Perfume song as they appeared. “Voice” remains a classic slice of auto-pilot Perfume, while the stutter-stepping “Nee” comes off as clumsy compared to the much-better executed retro whirl of “Laser Beam” (here presented in a slightly choppier mix that isn’t as strong as the single edit, but hardly torpedoing it). “575” still stands as Perfume’s sexiest hour, all sleek synth minimalism and fuzzy longing building up to a joyful “rap” segment. “Natural ni Koishite” is pure pop written in Batman “bams!” and “zonks!,” still gushworthy. “Kasukana Na Kaori” remains one of the worst, middle-of-the-road types of balladry by a group who shouldn’t be reduced to such end-credits drudgery. Only “Fushizen Na Girl” sees me swinging my opinion around – back in spring of 2010, this song sounded like ho-hum Perfume, especially compared to the boom-bap of “Natural.” Here, positioned as the penultimate track, it ends up a surprisingly memorable number, a wooshy rush that feels like a climax on JPN.
So that’s two personal best-of locks (“Natural,” “575”) two really really really good songs (“Laser Beam,” “Fushizen”), one pretty good number (“Voice”), one meh (“Nee”) and one unmitigated disaster. That’s a pretty solid hitting average, yet to be honest JPN feels like a slight disappointment because it COULD have been much better. Going into Tower to purchase this thing, visions of this being a top-three album danced in my head – the existing singles just needed a push from the new tracks. Unfortunately, the four debuted songs on JPN aren’t strong enough to elevate this LP to the next level. Three of them are solid enough – “My Color” boasts copy-paste Perfume verses but also features a strong chorus, highlighted by burbling electronics and particularly high-pitched synths. “Have A Stroll” sees producer Yasutaka Nakata summoning up the spirit of Perfume around the time of <em?Complete Best, the ultra-simple structure bringing to mind “Vitamin Drop,” yet also standing as a reminder of how much Nakata and Perfume have grown since those days. The best new cut is “Kokoro no Supotsu,” which works like a reverse “My Color.” The intro is all rain-against-car-window keyboard as Perfume gaze out and sing wistfully about something (at this point it is important to note lyrics rarely prove to be of much value to Perfume’s music), a surprisingly lonely backdrop for the usually cheery bunch. Everything surges into a “why am I so sad!” chorus, a catchy bit that also isn’t as interesting as those more sparse seconds. Rounding out the new songs is “Toki no Hari” which makes the aforementioned “Kasukana Kaori” sound like Revolver. Although this song presents a cool idea – a song where Perfume aren’t vocally manipulated by computers – Nakata wastes this on sub-nursery school marching music existing only to appear on the CDs wedding houses have on hand when the couple forgets to click “burn” on iTunes. Just dreadful.
What got my hopes up for JPN to possibly be a blockbuster album were the two singles dropped a month before the official release of the album, a pair of songs that stand as some of the group’s sneakiest, best work to date. “Glitter” is pure ecstasy, Nakata’s maximalist pop production sparkling extra bright. Perfume have often been labelled as “dance pop” or “techno pop,” yet “Glitter” actually comes close to sounding like dance or techno music, run through the group’s chart-focused filter. Check the album-mix intro, shining off until Nakata peels back layers to reveal some piano chords that could have been jacked from “The Strings Of Life.” It builds up and then…Perfume themselves enter and “Glitter” turns into pop delirium. It’s the sound of Nakata shunning proper structure in favor of a spinning feeling, spiked by the way they murmur the titular word post chorus, like the sounds coming out of their mouths were made of the party supply.
And then there is album closer “Spice.” Initially it sounds like something Nakata could toss-off before slipping to sleep, a Perfume song unfolding at half the speed and seemingly without most of the digital fireworks that have come to define their sound. Yet “Spice” hides considerable depth on the production side, Nakata constructing a catchy Katamari of a song that just rolls over everything, pushed on by one of the better vocal performances the three singers could give. Deep in the mix Nakata sprinkles some 8-bit bloops around (which, to break the central tenant of this review but is needed, brings to mind The Avalanches or even small-scale Timbaland), while he also plays a perfect game of Tetris with the vocals, placing them so they cushion and bounce off of one another just right. He even practically winks at the camera with one sound – the singers in Perfume have long been dubbed “robots,” “Auto-tuned” out of their minds and serving a role any schmuck could (allegedly) do. There are snippets of truth – Nakata is the architect for sure – yet on “Spice” he makes one synth line a particularly high-pitched sample of the group singing, as if freeing them up to not be apps here.
And that is what ultimately makes “Spice” a standout – the singing, one of the best performances from all four members of the group (Nakata swooping in with the tuning when needed and arranging it just right). The best moment comes late, when member Ayaka Nishiwaki’s voice suddenly slips out of Auto-tune and just comes out naturally. Nakata fiddles with this trick at various other points on JPN, and even devoted an entire terrible track to the idea, yet on the final song this moment feels like a legitimate surprise and like a glimpse at the group’s humanness. It doesn’t last long, but it’s a nice detail in a song loaded with them.
So that’s JPN – a handful of amazing singles, a lot of really good albeit par-for-the-course material and a brutal three-song stretch in the middle featuring two of the group’s worst songs. Heading into this I expected a masterpiece and heading out I felt a little letdown, but with time I can see exactly what JPN is – a Perfume album. Obvious, yes, but I’m talking about how this is an album from a singles-oriented outfit whose previous full-lengths highlighted the big hits, threw in some solid filler and also featured some annoying missteps (see the grating taxi-cab techno of Complete Best’s “Perfume” or Triangle’s “Edge,” my personal most hated Perfume song…one of the best aspects of JPN is it doesn’t feature plodding bloghouse dress-up). Like previous efforts, Nakata has created some interesting steps forward for the Perfume sound while mostly delivering mutations of the trio’s established sound to a public that has come to really said sound. JPN is Perfume being Perfume, and that sounds fine to me.
UPDATE: A few edits were made tonight, mostly just fixing some grammar and spelling errors. The only content change came with a line about the Western media and their perceptions of Japan – I realize I’m not completely sure about my statement so I deleted it. Gonna go eat a burrito now woooooo.