Review Summary: Leaving behind their roots, The Pillows discover their musical identity.
What does it take to write a truly timeless rock album? That’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, particularly considering that many of the greatest albums are inexorably rooted in the time in which they were recorded. So it was for The Pillows; their early output bore the unmistakable hallmarks of music descended from 1980s alternative rock encapsulated by The Smiths and The Cure. But with frontman Sawao Yamanaka’s embrace of groups such as Nirvana and the Pixies, The Pillows underwent a fundamental shift in their approach to songwriting and musical style.
This becomes immediately evident from the first moments of the album, as Stalker arrives with its minor-key bassline and uneasy grunge riffs. For those familiar with the band’s later style, it can be difficult to appreciate just how dramatic a departure this was from their established style: the group had been around for eight years, and this was by far the most aggressive song they’d ever written up to this point. With its dark music and lyrics, Stalker makes it immediately clear that The Pillows are drawing on a completely different source of inspiration than on their preceding albums.
But it’s also a bit disingenuous; none of the other tracks on Please Mr. Lostman sound anything like Stalker, and despite the grunge influence, the band still sounds like they’re having fun and aren’t genuinely angsty. Trip Dancer is a much truer representation of the album’s style: upbeat alternative rock with enthusiastic, memorable choruses. Although this song is also a first for the band, it’s impressive how quickly The Pillows have grasped how to make a song like this. Newcomers wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that the band had been making this kind of music for years.
Many fans consider Please Mr. Lostman to be The Pillows’ greatest album, for its combination of effective stylistic shift and a collection of outstanding songs. But interestingly enough, it doesn’t quite feel as cohesive as some of their later material. It’s certainly more consistent than the preceding two albums Kool Spice and Living Field, but Please Mr. Lostman sometimes feels more like a collection of songs written over a longer period of time, rather than in just a few session. Trip Dancer, Kanojo Wa Kyou, and Suicide Driving sound fairly consistent, but many of the other songs feel like they’re the product of completely different writing and recording sessions.
This is not, however, by any stretch a bad thing. Moon Is Mine is a well-paced rocker with a hint of sixties flavor, its highlight being a great guitar solo by Yoshiaki Manabe. Ice Pick is easily one of Please Mr. Lostman’s best songs, between its outstanding lyrics, the chorus, and Manabe’s jangling lead guitar. It’s the first truly melancholic song on the album, and shows a side of Yamanaka’s songcraft that was never really manifested on previous releases. And both of these songs feel very different from the tracks that proceed and follow them.
Kanojo Wa Kyou has a similar vibe to Trip Dancer, but is comparatively laid-back, taking time to develop its ideas and build up. The albums the band released a decade later could have benefitted from this same sort of pacing, instead of haphazardly throwing ideas all over the place. Sawao’s lyrics are evocative, and the guitar solo is one of the best on the album. Strange Chameleon is one of The Pillows’ defining songs, and by far the longest on the album (which also has the longest guitar solo.) Its emotional core doesn’t resonate quite as clearly as, say, Hybrid Rainbow, but it’s crucial to remember that Strange Chameleon was actually the first single from this album, released in 1995, and the first to reflect the band’s newfound alt-rock direction. It’s a dramatically different sound from the preceding single Tiny Boat, and despite being a dramatic evolution (rather than a slow change) it’s ultimately a success.
If Strange Chameleon isn’t the album centerpiece, Swanky Street certainly is. Many fans consider this to be The Pillows’ greatest song, a warm, ethereal composition that builds to a gigantic chorus and careening guitar solo, powered by some of Yamanaka’s most iconic songwriting. Swanky Street is as close to a perfect alternative rock song as you’re ever likely to hear, and Suicide Driving is nearly as good. It’s driven by Manabe’s lead guitar playing, which has a twanginess almost reminiscent of country music, even though this is clearly identifiable as a rock song. Interestingly enough, the band occasionally kicked around a slight country vibe on some of their songs from over a decade later.
Girls Don’t Cry softens things up a bit, compared to the last few tracks, and focuses on Sawao’s acoustic strumming while Manabe and the rest of the band remain relatively subdued. It feels at home toward the end of the album, as things wind down from the highlights of the center tracks. The titular song brings Please Mr. Lostman to a close, and though this warm, hopeful song is excellent in its own right, it can’t help but be overshadowed by the tremendous quality of the preceding tracks.
Please Mr. Lostman is the biggest evolution in The Pillows’ twenty-five year history, and formed the outline for nearly a decades’ worth of proceeding music. Though impressive as part of the band’s expansive output, this would be an excellent album by any standard of alternative rock, and it’s aged impeccably over the past seventeen years, with a timeless quality that its successors don’t quite achieve. Even if the album shows some of the growing pains of a band in transition, the diversity of the material and strength of the songs reveals The Pillows at their best – a feat all the more remarkable considering the ambitious growth from their previous releases.