Review Summary: Futurama is an album that defies the circumstances of its creation, setting the blueprint for Japanese rock and electronic music for decades.
One of the most overused and destructive tropes to show up in the analysis and review of popular culture is what I like to call the “cross-cultural analogue”. When Western reviewers review things from places they’re unfamiliar with, they go to comically great lengths to contextualize them in terms of the things they do know. When African author Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel Things Fall Apart debuted in the West, he was hailed as “the Shakespeare of Africa,” or “Kenya’s T.S. Eliot.” This mode of comparison often denies the original artists the full scope of their abilities, rendering them merely shadows of their Western equivalents. So, with all that said, I hope you’ll forgive me for the following: Futurama, the third album from Supercar, is Japan’s “OK Computer.”
It’s a loaded comparison, sure, but I feel it’s worth noting because of the context that Futurama was produced in. Japan’s popular culture in the late 90s had taken a dramatic shift away from “traditional” rock music, with the manufactured idol-pop and electronic outfits that popular the majority of the Oricon’s spots today just coming into being. Supercar, from its inception, was viewed as a rebuke to that. They were to be J-rock’s saviors. And initially they worked to fulfil that role. 1998’s Three Out Change was the first truly unique rock record to chart well in Japan in a while, debuting at #20 on the Oricon despite 2 of the 3 singles not even breaking into the chart. The follow-up, Jump Up, found even more success, debuting at #12. These albums, far from cannon fodder pop rock, preferenced the dissonant sonic qualities of alt rock and grunge music over any kind of pop sensibility. For them to do well commercially at all was a feat. Similar conditions in the West brought Radiohead to acclaim, as their first two albums heralded the “return of rock” as a popular creative and commercial force. But what’s truly remarkable is how both bands, facing the weight of “reviving” rock music, turned away from it so radically on their next two albums. Both Supercar and Radiohead, under the guidance of Koji Nakamura and Thom Yorke respectively, turned towards electronic music as a means of conveying a growing sense of alienation and dread.
Supercar’s effort, admittedly, bears a closer resemblance to the sunnier electronics that permeated the clubs of Tokyo and Yokohama at the time (think Denki Groove and TM Revolution) than to the moodier electronics of ‘90s UK. But Nakamura & Co. make up for it with lyrics that wholly undermine the saccharine exterior of the music. “Karma,” a clear highlight, boasts lyrics about Nakamura’s ambivalence in almost all aspects of his life, with him singing that he is “half-hearted in [his] kindness,” and “half-hearted in [his] regretfulness.” “Fairway,” the album’s first and most popular single, features lines about not existing and relational hesitation in the chorus. When juxtaposed with the album’s generally uptempo construction, it makes for an incredibly weird listen, but one that nonetheless feels necessary for understanding not just Nakamura and, by extension, Supercar, but also for contextualizing the album’s placement within the greater canon of Japanese popular music.
But all that comes with time. What’s truly important here is the music itself, and it by no means takes a backseat to its implications. The album feels futuristic in the way that only late ‘90s and early 2000s music does (rubbery synthesizers and programmed beats mixed with analog elements like guitars and live drums). Tracks like “Flava” and “SHIBUYA MORNING” rely more on mood and atmosphere than on any riveting melodic idea, but it works because of how well-suited the atmosphere is to the rest of the album. Songs generally flow into each other, making the whole thing feel like one extended riff on an exceptionally sound sonic idea. Even when things slow down, like on “A.O.S.A” and “New Young City,” Supercar manages to maintain a sense of propulsion.
Much of this comes from the band’s rhythm section, which artfully manages the interplay between live and synthesized drums and bass. ¬On tracks like “I’m Nothing” and “White Surf style 5,” the two are mixed together for wholly different effects. On “I’m Nothing,” a lifeless programmed drum beat gives life to Nakamura’s emotive lyrics about the end of eternity and feelings of worthlessness. The beat becomes a representation of the monotony Nakamura describes, his life continually showing no signs of promise or potential (“I’m nothing today, until the sight began to wither, I was nothing”). Conversely, “White Surf style 5’s” classic D&B breakbeat gives way to live drumming, imbuing the song’s soaring chorus with an added sense of ceremony.
With regard to technical skills, this was the point where the band reached the peak of its abilities. The guitars all across this album are stellar yet understated, giving voice to the restraint common in the lyrics. The synths, for as much fuss as was made about them, are relatively unobtrusive and give the album a necessary new dimension. The band does play around a bit with the vocals across this album, pitching up Miki Furukawa’s background vocals on songs like “Baby Once More” to add an extra layer to the more understated instrumentals. The production across the board is excellent, with parallels to other artists like Cornelius and Yellow Magic Orchestra being more than apt. While the album does have clear highlights (“Baby Once More,” “Karma,” and “A.O.S.A” come to mind), there are no tracks that feel obligatory or staid in their execution. Despite an almost unwieldy 16 track run, no single track deserves to be regularly skipped.
For a band like Supercar, it’s almost impossible to escape the endless weight of expectation and analogue. Whether it’s positive or negative, a band tasked with genre revival or reinvention is almost bound to fail. But with Futurama, Supercar tapped into something special. They were able to make a record that expanded their appeal greatly while honing in on some of the more transgressive parts of their persona. They made a rock record that only loosely adhered to the rules of rock music, a techno record that would never get play in a club. At the time, it was lunacy. But in retrospect, Supercar made one of the century’s best rock records. They broke boundaries and redefined what a commercially viable record could be. In more analogous terms, they made their OK Computer.