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Published in English by a French company last year, the latest edition of Japanese Independent Music is a 350-page encyclopedia listing hundreds of bands and musicians you and I will never hear—and that’s not even counting the 18 understandably obscure acts on the tome’s enclosed CD. Although his discography is one of the book’s lengthiest, the editors allot only three sentences to Cornelius, concluding with this judgment: “Not that bad, but rather dumb.”
Much of the book’s text shows signs of having been awkwardly translated, so it’s unlikely that “dumb” was meant as anything other than the antonym of “smart”—aka “intelligent,” as in “intelligent dance music,” one of the odder categories ever devised by electronica’s overworked taxonomists. But “dumb” is not an entirely inappropriate term for Tokyo’s Cornelius—real name: Keigo Oyamada—a 30-something Planet of the Apes obsessive who has mastered all aspects of international pop music except its language: English.
Cornelius’ dazzling new album, Point, spins, stretches, and decontextualizes English words as if they were random files in the post-rock auteur’s near-infinite database of tones. Thus “Smoke,” one of the album’s catchiest tracks, elongates its one-word title into “Su-mooooo-k,” a sinuous abstraction that seems, well, vaporous. That musical pun could be the concept, or the pronunciation might just reflect that Japanese is a language that doesn’t have consonant blends.
At any rate, literal meaning is probably not the, uh, point of Point. Cornelius is hardly the first person to recognize that Japanese urban existence is like living inside a giant Rauschenberg, a mad jumble in which English words are used mostly for graphic or totemist purposes. Sci-fi anime films have depicted such a cityscape to people who’ve never experienced Shibuya, the west Tokyo neighborhood that has long been the epicenter of Japanese youth culture—and the symbolic home of the “Shibuya sound” associated with Cornelius and his label, Trattoria. Though Shibuya still bustles, some Japanese musicians have distanced themselves from its scene. In a 1999 interview, for example, Boom Boom Satellites bassist-programmer Masayuki Nakano said he wasn’t much interested in taking “influences from various musical genres and putting them together in a cute Japanese way.”
That’s pretty much what Cornelius has done in the past, notably on 1998’s Fantasma, an extravagantly eclectic studio creation that sometimes sounds like a Nuggets band teaching Sesame Street viewers how to count. (That album’s “One two three four” refrain is replaced on Point by “Left right top point.”) Cornelius has listed cartoon music and special-effects sounds among his formative musical experiences and now describes Fantasma as embodying a fifth-grader’s outlook. (So, of course, does much of Japan’s Hello Kitty culture.) The musician grew up to like punk, metal, hiphop, samba, Hawaiian music, and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, and sees no reason not to combine all of them into a single three-minute track. Some people might call the results “cute”; others, “dumb.”
It was the Byrds who first made rock music “intelligent” by borrowing songs from Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and other lit-major folkies. Soon every rocker with pretensions to seriousness was trying to catch up, writing songs about all the lonely people, street-fighting men, and Pleasant Valley Sundays. Lyrics had to matter, although the same period also marked the inauguration of the rock song cycle and the recording studio as instrument. Add disco’s synthetic beats, hiphop and techno’s appropriation of minimalism’s pulses and loops, and pop culture’s globalization, and 30 years later the world may be ready for a Japanese polymath who cares not about words but about pure sonics and what he calls “different moments of feeling. Feeling happy, sad, awkward, awful, ecstatic.”
Paying tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s and maybe Finnegans Wake, Point opens with a sustained note and closes with a sustained chord, although the latter ultimately yields to a grinding noise and what could be the squawk of a phonograph’s tonearm being knocked off a record. The album is packed with digital effects but was apparently conceived in analog terms, running a vinyl-era 45 minutes and 29 seconds and depending as much on multitracked guitars as on samples and mechanical-sounding voices (most of them Cornelius’ own, although “Brazil” features an actual robot, left over from a Honda commercial for which he composed the music). The credits identify “Brazil”—the CD’s ninth selection—as “track B3,” placing it on a phantom flip side.
The album’s running time is emblazoned on its front cover, along with Cornelius’ Web address and this motto: “from Nakameguro to Everywhere.” Southwest of Shibuya, Nakameguro is the recently married (to singer-songwriter Takako Minekawa) musician’s new, more suburban neighborhood, where he maintains the private studio that allowed him to painstakingly construct Point over the course of a year. Cornelius played everything on the album except violin, viola, and cello, otherwise working only with engineer and programmer Toyoaki Mishima and mixer Toru Takayama. Think of Nakameguro as Brian Wilson’s bedroom and you have some sense of the music’s universe-in-a-bottle quality.
Like Brian, Keigo don’t surf, but Point is nonetheless awash in watery effects, from rippling guitars to actual raindrops, as well as twittering birds, howling dogs, and gently breaking waves. Nature, revered in traditional Japanese culture, is perhaps the most poignant loss in urbanized Japan, where trees are pruned to be nearly as small as microchips and most of the blooms are neon. Of course, feather-and-blood songbirds would be disconcerted by segues like the one from the tropical pop of “Bird Watching at Inner Forest” to the baroque speed-metal of “I Hate Hate,” a brief barrage that could clear any nature reserve.
Texture and juxtaposition are crucial to Point’s tapestry, which precisely layers easy-listening harmonies, roundabout guitar figures, digital-hardcore breakbeats, breathy voices, ping-pong riffs, and bursts of static into a sort of cubist multiple-viewpoint collage. Equally important, however, is forward motion. For music based on stasis, the 11 tracks of Point make a remarkable amount of headway. Like Moby, Cornelius is a post-song guy who pays tribute to the dramatic structure of outmoded musical forms, whether symphonies or ’60s hit singles. While driving rings around the world, Cornelius deftly avoids electronica’s many ruts. CP