Review Summary: Japan refine their avante-garde pop sound.
After making two albums in the vein of typical post-punk and one synthpop/post-punk crossover, Japan successfully created their own and unique music. Comparing Gentlemen Take Polaroids to other artists of the same time is quite hard, because I've failed to hear anything remotely resembling this. While having sung in a punk-ish David Bowie style on previous records (except for Quiet Life), frontman and singer David Sylvian swapped his earlier singing voice to baritone, making the music sound more mature than ever. Growing up and becoming more mature applies to the music as well. Average song length is longer, greater instrumental diversity, and the lyrics are deeper and better than ever before. Even though David was only 22 at the time of recording and despite being in the music business for merily 3 years, he is very confident and targeted. Knowing his musical capabilities, and acting as band's sole song writer, David knows exactly what kind of music he wants to create.
Kicking the album off with the strong title track, it's easy to point out how he has progressed in just over a year. Guitars no longer rely on power chords, but rather play in the background, with quirky synths and interesting fretless bass becoming more apparent. The title track is a dynamic masterpiece alternating between the experimental, free-floating middle parts, and the casual pop chorus found throughout the song. As for as diversity goes, it might actually alienate some listeners. At times, you can draw paralells between the works of minimalist artists like Brian Eno. Burning Bridges is by far the strangest track on the album, refraining from the likes of rock almost completely, but instead focusing on creating a strange atmosphere, utilizing a wide variety of synths and recording techniques. An important element to the album's quirkyness is bassist Mick Karn's fretless bass playing. It's often played in a way that almost sounds anti-catchy. The basslines are for the most part independent, and they give off a totally freaky, psychedelic vibe. However, it perfectly fits the music because of its strangeness.
Furthermore, David has enough brain to lay off with the whacky sound, and instead deliver some very pretty ballads. Both Methods of Dance and Nightporter stand out as top notch tracks. Both are seven minutes in length, and don't fail to impress the listener in any way. Methods of Dance follow the title track's song structure, with similar elements such as the synth. However, it is much more melodic, with David singing in a much more passionate way and sharing the chorus with a female background vocalist. Nightporter on the other hand sticks out from the other songs completely. It doesn't contain any bass or drums, only vocals, piano, synth and additional woodwind and string instruments. Nightporter is the ultimate "looking out of the window while it's raining outside" song, reeking with sadness, but also beauty.
In short, this album is strange, but good. Recommending it to everyone would be a pretty crazy thing to do, because it might be a bit hard to swallow for some listeners. Nonetheless, the album's strange sound shrouds the real element behind it: the grace. In every song, you always find moments that you can savour. If you like broadening your horizons, this album is perfect for you. Approach with an open mind.