Review Summary: A distorted celebration of Japanese pop wholesomeness
One of my favourite albums of 2018 was Kero Kero Bonito’s sophomore release, Time n Place
. Building on their debut, which toed a fun-yet-fine line between music and meme, the band produced an indie-pop gem that was equal parts electric creativity and sombre reflection. Noise-pop and distortion factored into the equation frequently but not overwhelmingly and the end product was as thoughtful as it was fun.
Imagine my joy on realising that Haru Nemuri’s full-length debut, released several months prior to Time n Place
not only manipulated genre conventions in a comparable manner but was even prouder and more extravagant in its pop overtones, playing out with irresistible catchiness and a similar bittersweet edge. However, where Kero Kero Bonito were often uncertain, a competent band dipping their toes into new waters, Haru Nemuri’s songs represent a powerhouse of confident songwriting that thrives on irresistible poppiness and loud-as-hell delivery.
One of the most important things to note about Haru to Shura
is that it’s very much a variations-on-a-theme album, the theme in question being a fairly upbeat pop sound that borrows liberally from rock instrumentation, noise and distortion. Some tracks are particularly strident in their noise inclinations (春と修羅 / Spring and Carnage) while others are closer to conventional pop (ナインティーン / Nineteen) but Nemuri’s mode of songwriting is so consistent and the flow of songs is so seamless that there are points at which this might as well be a single album-long song. Some may find it a little close to homogeneity for their liking, but it’s also easy to see this as a fully realised outing of a successful formula.
On the most part the production is decisively ‘pop’ but it stops short of outright glossiness. It’s also an interesting hybrid of acoustic and processed sounds (think Art Angels minus a few sprinklings of sugar and you’ll get the gist). The album couples digital synths and production effects with percussion and guitar parts much closer to a ‘live’ sound. Real guitars meet a plethora of square- and saw-wave tones, percussion gets split between acoustic and electronic depending on the song in question - you get the picture.
This blend is quite significant - it suggests both the social, interpersonal aspects of a band performance and the self-contained musical ruminations of a solitary artist, and consequentially finds itself in an odd halfway house that plays out as digestible but endearingly out of sorts accordingly to either model. YouTube critic Anthony Fantano remarked on how this album is closer to Japan’s legacy of noise/alt/punk than it is to chart pop, and I’d agree to a certain degree, although it’s easy to make a case that any inventive or noisy music is distinct from the mainstream. However I think that its proximity to the world of J-pop is just as interesting than its distinction from it.
This uncertain identity makes me wonder what Nemuri’s live show is like; I imagine it would be moving but insular, the opposite of the shows that make you love feeling part of a crowd, jumping and dancing with everyone around. In my head, Haru Nemuri’s performance would be engrossing and fun, but in the bittersweet way of feeling like one lost soul listening to the music of another, the energy and distortion of which are just a vehicle. Perhaps this is completely inaccurate and her concerts actually go down like licensed riots, but I think this impression is still a pertinent reflection on the music here.
Part of that impression is drawn from the centrality of Nemuri’s voice to the album. This may seem like stating the obvious - guess whose name is on the cover! - but her performance is very much the driving force here in her lyrics, her animated delivery and (especially) her knack of chiming perfectly with the supporting arrangements. A cynic might dismiss the latter as merely a result of good production, but it underpins the truth at the heart of Haru to Shura: it’s pop music made by a vocalist who is on the one hand not a particularly gifted singer, yet on the other hand is confident and expressive in her own voice. She doesn’t ‘sing’ as such here; she raps, yells and screams in a manner too abrupt to be outright anthemic but plenty catchy all the same. Her delivery is on point for the most point, although her alternation between stylings could be more dynamic. Her screams in the bridge of 鳴らして / Cry Out, for instance, would have been a welcome presence had they been deployed more frequently throughout the album, as would the more frantic rapping/spoken word style she uses on the bridge of せかいをとりかえしておくれ / Take Back the World, which blurs rhythm and utterance into relentless discourse.
In general the rap here is earnest and intense in its delivery, too carefully enunciated to suggest Nemuri blurting her heart out outright but distinctively emotional all the same. This is particularly evident in the context of the lyrics, which while easy to ignore for any non-Japanese speakers are worth a read and add a good deal to the album as a whole. In a nutshell they take feelings of longing and loneliness and articulate it through a strident desire for growth and exclamation. Haru Namuri isn’t all-confident or beyond the scope of her own insecurities, but she believes firmly in music as a force for positivity and declares as much in no uncertain terms. In many ways this is an album about angst and uncertainty, but without the sadness or regret that tend to accompany these feelings; Haru to Shura
sets its sights on the amplification and celebration of experience, and there’s a positivity in this that resounds authentically at any given point in its flow. Here’s a taster from せかいをとりかえしておくれ / Take Back the World that pretty much sums it up (lyrics in translation):
The fact that that kid died, or missiles fly, or how we can’t use magic
Surely it’s always because god’s abandoned this planet, whoever, or whatever
My weakness, or your sadness, these aren’t someone’s standards
That’s just something that’s there
That’s something probably being brought down
It’s what it means to live--
It’s something called living!
So you scream out loud: “I’m living here now!”
The interplay between the loneliness of Nemuri’s lyrical persona and the strength of her delivery brings us back to the album’s easily overstated yet integral buzzword: distortion. This a prominent theme (both musical and lyrical) here, a theme one usually associated with the chaotic alteration of a single signal. However, on Haru to Shura
, distortion feels more like an interference generated by the tension between its twin anchoring sounds: Haru Nemuri the exciting rock/rap vocalist and Haru Nemuri the despondent pop lyricist; exciting noise and conventional pop. The distortion we hear on this album is the sound of pop-in-spite-of-itself, and if Nemuri can keep things this appealing and engaging, it’s a sound that may well carry her a long way.
LYRICS TRANSLATION (credits: jxcess): https://docs.google.com/document/d/10YdL3hBujWo0o_k87DOUEIjHvlljTfZE1QIwktjgBVk/edit