Review Summary: He plays the piano.
I can't remember how this album fell into my hands. I believe it involved a series of exchanges through the internet, falling into the hands of an old Japanese woman, who then exchanged this CD for soap operas, thus bringing the CD into the hands of my mother's friend. Somehow, my mom found possession of this CD, and from her, I borrowed it. The white, pristine, innocuous cover. The least profound cover I have ever seen.
Often times in music, we forget how incredibly powerful space can be. There are albums that try to load every little crevice with music and noise. Sometimes, those albums turn out absolutely wonderful (Pink Flag, Bee Thousand). However, it is often striking to hear an album that has so much room to move around (i.e. instrumentals, long breaks and sprawling ambiance). Those albums are rare, but when they appear, they illuminate (Dark Side Of The Moon, F#A#OO).
Ryuichi Sakamoto does something unique. He creates an entire album of simplistic, beautiful, sad piano pieces. Any one of these songs could fit as an interlude in an Art Rock LP, or Concept Album. But Sakamoto makes an entire album of beautiful breaks. Soothing pauses. Beautiful interludes. In a way, listening to this album is a large interlude in the sprawling concept album of life (or is that too corny"). In short, "Playing the Piano" is a very powerful work disguised as a "mood album."
The opening three songs are perfect. The first chord of "Amore" begins and you suddenly feel somewhat reflective. Everything begins to slow down and the sky becomes gray (even if it doesn't). It's a slow start to a very slow album, and that isn't a bad thing. Following the opening track is the best song on the album, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence." 4 minutes and 42 seconds of sheer beauty. If you listen to it, I guarantee you will feel sad, but at the same time in awe of the incredible professionalism of the composition. It ends with the sweetest chord you will ever hear. The chord alone could steal the show on this album. The track is wonderful, and there is no better song on the album... although "A Flower is Not a Flower" gets extremely close. The song sounds like you're at a smooth jazz bar, except the piano player is feeling rather melancholy. It aches with a tundra of frosty loss and reflection. One might call is "smooth." Another might call it "yearning." I would call it "thought out."
The only problem that proceeds the opening three tracks is that some of the next songs, although breathtaking, are often forgotten. The first three tracks are incredibly memorable, but afterwards, most of the tracks lose the "hooks" that made the first three songs genius. The songs aren't bad, they just don't steal the show, "The Last Emperor" and "Tamago 2004" are both wonderful pieces that really add the the feel of the album. The mood is not lost. In fact, there is absolutely no better way to proceed the first three songs than with "The Sheltering Sky," the saddest song on the album.
So, does the album ever feel...happy" YES! The first half of the album is perfect for a rainy day, when you just want to lay down and die in a beautiful, Tim Burton-esque way. However, the second half of the album is much more diverse. "Tibetan Dance" and "Thousand Knives" both boil with delight, and can just about make you dance. Plus, they showcase how skilled Sakamoto is as a piano player.
"Riot in Lagos" is fast. It's a high paced rocker on the piano that feels like something out of a Jaws movie. It's enjoyable, but not necessarily something that one would want to listen to on repeat. It lacks the great melodies that the other songs on the album possess.
I believe the album begins to slow it's wondrous pace during "Reversing" and "Mizu No Naka..." simply because these are the least memorable songs on the album. Not to say that there is anything horrid about either of these songs. It just seems as if these tracks are put in the album for their simplicity and beauty. They embody the theme of the album perfectly, but they don't add to it in any unique way. They're not throw-aways, but their not keepers, leaving them to shed their skin in the glory of the rest of the album.
The album ends on a high note. "Bolerish" is a breathtaking example of what true reflection is. I imagine myself dying when listening to this track; think about your life while listening to this song and odd things will happen. That being said, the song itself is not "catchy" like some of the other songs, but there is something about it that feels almost, dare I say, Classic. Debussy or Bach could have written this song. And then it ends. Abruptly. Without sense. Kind of like death (but not so sad. Just very realistic).
Ultimately, this album achieves something very grand. It maintains eclecticism between tracks, although every song only has ONE PIANO and NO LYRICS. This album is a testament to the fact that a truly wonderful song needs nothing else to make it special. Although not every song shines, every one of them has something unique about it. That makes this album grand. Only one piano creates true emotion, and unique songs.
Try not to shed a tear.