Review Summary: To run away.
In my last Supercar review, I explained why the cultural and career trajectories of Japanese band Supercar and English band Radiohead were worthy of comparison. I explained how Supercar’s Futurama, in its existential and technological dread, encapsulated the moment in a way that OK Computer did here in the West. And that comparison is as apt here as it was in my last review: with HIGHVISION, Supercar have their own Kid A.
Supercar achieved a great deal of success with Futurama, with the album unexpectedly hitting the Oricon Top 20 and its third single doing exceptionally well. In a climate where manufactured pop music was all that could chart (Utada Hikaru, in all her infinite charm, had just released “Deep River,” a classic in and of itself), Supercar had made a dent with music that fell distinctly outside of the mainstream. And faced again with the prospect of being rock music’s champions, the band turned its back and returned with HIGHVISION, a claustrophobic and downtempo electronic record that defies almost all categorization.
It’s not like Supercar hadn’t flirted with electronic music before. A good portion of Futurama was made up of sampled D&B breakbeats and hazy synths. But HIGHVISION marked a whole new commitment to electronica, one that would smash conventional wisdom surrounding the climate of Japanese popular music and again redefine what could be commercially viable. The album has only one song that could really serve as an effective single, and is primarily made up of moody atmospherics and solemn meditations on vaguely emotional subject matter.
This aversion to popular convention is made immediately evident on “STARLINE.” The track mostly floats about for its 4-minute runtime. Nakamura’s vocals, stark and defeated, detail something shockingly close to death. “We met love, prayer, and strife while lost in our struggles,” he begins, only to close the song out with the declaration that “heaven’s light drew us in.” It’s a particularly solemn way to start the album, but one that finds serenity in its morbid subject matter. For the subject, death is “captivating.” For him, everything is in its right place.
“STARLINE” is followed by “WARNING BELL,” another abstract meditation that finds peace in its mania. In truth, this feeling of death and resurrection hovers over all this album’s 10 tracks. Whether it’s in Nakamura’s pining for his youth, as he does on “YUMEGIWA LAST BOY” and “AOHARU YOUTH” or in the frequent mentions of pointlessness and lost love (“SILENT YARITORI” and “STROBOLIGHTS”), HIGHVISION feels like its cover, serene and lonely.
This feeling of loneliness finds itself perfectly represented in the midtempo rock excursions of “OTOGI NATION” and “STORYWRITER” as well as the four-on-the-floor freakout of “YUMEGIWA LAST BOY.” While less dense than Futurama, HIGHVISION boasts a similar level of cohesion and polish, with each track flowing effortlessly into the next and expounding on many of the same lyrical or sonic threads. This album also gives our good friend Miki Furukawa some more play, with her vocals not just serving a textural role but actually taking the lead on a few songs. Most notable of these outings is “STROBOLIGHTS,” a childlike ode to love and the passage of time. As she lays out these equations for lasting love, you can feel a palpable sense of contentment start to creep into the album’s proceedings. And it’s at this point that the true theme of the album starts to become apparent.
HIGHVISION is about loneliness, but not in a vacuum. It contextualizes loneliness as the absence not just of other warm bodies, but of a driving purpose. While some find it in love, others find it in knowing that there is an end to the mortal coil, and that they can confidently ascent to heaven knowing they lived their best life. Death, in the context of this album, is no more than another avenue by which the loneliness that comes inherent to existence can be resolved or perpetuated. On “I,” Furukawa sings of how love gives her purpose, it “leads” her heart. On “YUMEGIWA LAST BOY,” Nakamura looks to his childhood dreams and the freedom they lent him.
This is where the Radiohead comparison again comes into play. Beyond all the talk of cloning and dystopian governments that surrounds all of Radiohead’s work there is something tangible, something undeniably human. And on Kid A, this human element becomes apparent. Songs like “In Limbo” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack” allude to Yorke’s loneliness and lack of purpose. On “In Limbo,” Thom Yorke intones that he’s “lost [his] way,” and that he’s “lost at sea.” He’s alone, not in a physical sense but emotionally. He’s lost direction and can’t find purpose. On “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” suicide is again evoked as not just a solution to the problem but as a perpetuation of the loneliness. “I will see you in the next life,” he sings at one point. “Help me get back where I belong,” he pleads. It’s in these songs and others across both albums that we see just how prescient both bands were. They both were able to not only defy the conventions of their native countries’ popular music establishment, but they also did it in a way that highlighted the great millennial problem. In an age of computers and changing polities and systems, how do we find purpose? How do we protect our relationships and our warmth and our spirit in an increasingly distant, cold, and dispirited world?
For both albums, the artwork depicts a possible solution. Empty landscapes, idyllic in their lifeless serenity yet frightening in their stillness, point to a world where people, purposeless and lost, have disappeared completely.