Review Summary: Shock-value structural choices camouflage deceptively solid pop songwriting
Spoiler alerts are seldom associated with music for a range of obvious reasons: most music is not particularly contingent on novelty and requires repeated listenings to appreciate rather than a cathartic first listen (though this can go a long way); the appeal of music is more aesthetically derived than that of narrative arts and therefore is resistant to prior expectations more specific than positive or negative ‘hype’; and it’s hard to encapsulate a sufficiently accurate impression enough of music in writing to constitute a ‘spoiler’ in the first place. Sure, there are albums that benefit from listeners going in with open minds and few expectations, but it is very rare to find an album that boasts an analogous plot twist striking enough to necessitate an ignorant first impression.
With all that said, I invite you to pause from reading this review and, if you have not already heard it, listen to Oomori Seiko’s Zettai Shoujo
(or at least the first four to six tracks). Go ahead, check it out - I promise I’m not trying to compensate for the quality of my writing, but it’s no fun giving away the album’s chief gimmick if that means you’ll never experience it in full for yourselves. Take as long as you need; I’m in no hurry.
Been there, done that？ Had fun？ Not falling for such thinly-veiled promotion of Seiko-chan’s early days？ Get on with the review already？ Cool.
Oomori Seiko is a Japanese pop artist whose work enjoys a bizarrely healthy relationship with self-contradiction. On the one hand, she’s got an excellent ear for strong song structures and sentimental melodies; on the other, her voice has the resonance and approximate timbre of a ruptured tyre. She loves idol pop just as much as she loves antagonising it; she writes some of the catchiest hooks imaginable but manages to overshadow them with songwriting decisions of near-bemusing boldness (case in point: her fifth album Kitixxxgaia
has three mutually exclusive closers, depending on edition). She pushes for a concrete definition of her sound with every album but claims that from her perspective all her work has a shelf-life of six months maximum; she’s increasingly fond of bombastic full-band and/or EDM-esque arrangements but her early career (including this album) is more akin to a folk solo artist, and she’s still more than happy to perform unplugged solo sets.
It would be easy to label her as an acquired taste, but honestly there’s very little actively off-putting about her music besides, possibly, her voice - and even there, similar to the godmother of independently minded J-pop, Shiina Ringo, she uses decisive songwriting choices and personable delivery to ensure that her vocals are an overall asset. However, the provocative aspects of her pop-against-pop ethos manifest in a number of left-field turns, and there is no better example of that than Zettai Shoujo
Now for the long-awaited music-spoiler. Opener Zettai Kanojo
is the most sweetly appealing mid-paced pop song imaginable, complete with mellow synths, gentle production, a singalong chorus and lyrics about Oomori’s Disneyland fantasy and her love for womankind. It’s catchy and definitely enjoyable, but also immensely inoffensive and radio-ready. Second track Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu
takes things a little further a full synth-pop arrangement and a driving vocal melody that carries its many, many hooks into stadium-ready earworm territory. These two songs embrace mainstream pop wholeheartedly and offer a wealth of ultra-kawaii family-friendly saccharine goodness…which is why you’d be forgiven for wondering whether you were still listening to the same album when the thin acoustic pluck, treble-happy snare drum and virtually hook-free vocal melodies of sparse third track Endless
take the stage without fanfare. Within 30 seconds Oomori Seiko flips from emergent superstar ready to storm the charts to the kind of indie-folk dreamer you’d expect to be more familiar with the tape recorder in her parents’ basement than an actual recording studio. Happy with this sound？ Welcome to the rest of Zettai Shoujo
is one of the least remarkable tracks on the album, the bulk of the following material is in the same stylistic vein: whimsical folk-pop firmly focused on Oomori’s voice and acoustic strumming, although occasional accompaniment and embellishment from other instruments. The first three tracks' construction and rejection of her own brand of radio pop is by far the most dramatic moment, but it resonates throughout the album with much more force than an early-game gimmick would be expected to carry. This is chiefly due to the fact that many of the songwriting decisions taken on later tracks seem to relish in the glee of the earlier volte-face: for instance, Over The Party
could have been a single with a different arrangement, but Oomori subjects it to jarringly choppy dynamics, waves of feedback and constant shifts of tempo that give off a false impression of amateurism. Tenran kai no e
takes this further and is virtually structurally amorphous, introducing a saxophone for a brief ounce of melody followed by a chaotic anti-solo. The other tracks nod toward the ebb, flow and lurch of these tracks’ dynamics, but they stand as the best examples of Zettai Shoujo’s
pretence of self-sabotage.
This pretence, of course, is not without its drawbacks. Oomori’s pseudo-amateur singer-songwriter approach leads to several half-baked tracks that go nowhere beyond showcasing qualities better explored in other songs. This is particularly prevalent over the central run of songs from Purikura nide
and although the album makes a strong recovery, this mid-way lacuna is too extensive to dismiss. Additionally, the underproduced texture of the songs risks wearing thin at points for a reason that can be most accurately pinpointed somewhere in between the near absence of low-end frequencies and the Oomori’s often unrestrained vocal techniques (think Bjork’s more freeform moments without her richness of tone). Some will find this more grating than others, but while the aesthetic gesture of the style is very clear, I don’t think it’s quite strong enough to justify dominating 85% of an album.
Fortunately there are some real treasures here that are hardly contingent on the album’s stylistic postulation. Penultimate track Kimi to eiga
is indie-folk perfection, finally returning to the opening pair’s fondness for sweet-sounding vocal melodies and uplifting chord progressions but with all the charm of the other tracks’ lack of polish. Closer I & YOU & I & YOU & I
succeeds for similar reasons, although it’s a little more subdued. I’ve already mentioned Over the Party
, but that track explores the album’s rougher qualities most convincingly and is all things exciting, fun and catchy. However, the true highlight of the album has very little to do with its other tracks. Aoi Heya
is a gorgeous piano ballad with the most minimal arrangement on the album (just voice and piano) but rather than feeling wilfully sparse, it has a powerful tone that places Oomori’s vocals, brittle as ever but beautifully so, centre stage and gives her the space to draw out the song’s bittersweet lyrical themes to their fullest (seriously, look up a translation for this one - it’s moving stuff). Finally, while the first two songs are most notable for their contrast with the rest of the album, they are still solid pop tracks in their own right and certainly incentivise repeat listens. Full points for craftiness there: the album leaves a slightly bitter taste but then provides its own palette cleanser if you come back to it…
In any case, Zettai Shoujo
is striking and entertaining as performative ‘artistic statement’ album and more or less successful by the strengths of its songwriting. It’s deliberately imperfect and does not quite escape collateral damage from the many risks it takes, but Oomori Seiko proves that her songwriting chops are easily strong enough to accommodate her performative streak. Her later work would accompany this in a more even-handed manner - follow-up album Sennou
, for instance, is a veritable wonderland of bold writing decisions that never fail to hit the mark - but what Zettai Shoujo
lacks in consistency, it makes up for in distinctive, iconic appeal. And, of course, it helps that among its highlights are some absolutely essential material for any listener.