Review Summary: Charming, loveable, and sophisticated music for a world that’s as forever reaching as an innocent imagination
Growing up is tough. Dealing with the inevitability of getting old is one of life's great struggles. Luckily, to temporarily deal with our once young and (blissfully) ignorant minds being slowly chiseled to stone by the cold hand of reality, there's this thing called "music". If you put your ear up close to it, sometimes you can feel this thing called "nostalgia". Since his 1997 critical breakthrough Fantasma, Cornelius has been cranking out this "nostalgia" stuff, as well turning heads with his quirky take on pop music, incorporating elements such as electronica, psychedelic pop, lounge, bossa nova, and sample-based plunderphonics into his songs. With healthy comparisons over the years to Beck, The Beach Boys, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Primal Scream, Cornelius has paved a wonderfully inviting and heavenly scented yellow brick road for those unfamiliar with the world of Japanese pop music. From the mind of a man with his head high above the clouds, Cornelius's latest album (and first in seven years) finds the kooky auteur more elevated than ever, looking down on the world from his child-like, cardboard castle on the moon, gently waving us upward to join him on another whimsical adventure.
NHK Design Ah marks a new sonic venture for Cornelius, into the wonderful world of incidental music. The album is the soundtrack to an educative short series titled "Design Ah", which airs on NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network (think kawaii-PBS). Essentially, the show aims to "rethink everyday objects from a design perspective in order to educate children and adults on the joys of design". D'aw, how cute. The music here is set-up with the same rigid, architectural mindset aimed for both kids and adults alike, spanning a series of short 25-track bursts (usually never crossing the 2 minute mark) over the course of 37 delectable minutes of super-fun-ultra-happy electro-midi-sugar-pop instrumentals. Opening the neatly fastened box is "Design Ah No Theme", showered in fragments of vocal Oh / Ah's that could pass for an imported version of the Rugrats theme, under a lite-whistles and infectious hand claps.
A robotic text-to-speech count’s out "1-2-3-4-5" around the hula hoop-funk of "Design Kazoe Ultra", emulating a quirky preschool numbers lesson. The pre-rendered glitch of chopped up designs like "Katachi No Shiki", "Karada No Katachi", and "Ana" formulate code similar to Computer World era-Kraftwerk and lullaby renditions of Oval's 94 Disknot. Other designs like "Maru To Shikaku" and "Color Magic" act as bite-size versions of the sparkling pop songs Cornelius is tailored for. Further designs experiment, like a child's first game of Mouse Trap, heard on the angelic vocal drone of "Long Clutch C" and the lovely backwards floating swan-song "Omottetan To Chigau". Some of the most beautiful moments on the album can be heard in the warm folky daydreams of "Dessin Ah" and "Yajirushi Song", strumming folktronic paradise as the cascading leaves of fall begin to gently change color.
In terms of sound design, video games play a huge role on the dream-like impression the album expresses throughout. In particular, NHK Design Ah resembles the colorful, over-saturated game worlds of Katamari Damacy and Animal Crossing. Listening to these charming mini-compositions is like hearing K.K. Slider strum his MIDI-acoustic blues, or collecting a set of musical Gyroids in your cozy little den and lying back to hear their bleep-bloop melodies. The difference here is those delicate jingles are fleshed out into living, breathing works of art, held together by vast amounts of subtle instrumentation and an expert balance of catchy, innocent, funky, quirky, and nostalgic moods. Most faithfully, NHK Design Ah, like the TV show it curates, is designed to evoke the child inside all of us. Transporting the listener back to a time of wide-eyed wonder and child-like innocence, painting an aural canvas of charming, loveable, and sophisticated music for a world that’s as forever reaching as an innocent imagination.