Review Summary: Another essential outing for the most exciting pop artist of our time“Oomori-san is the type of person who, if there’s a whole cake, rather than cutting it up for each person, will give each person a whole cake.”
- Paipai Dekami
Oomori Seiko makes me believe in music. There are musicians who compose engrossing pieces, who sing incredible songs, or who tap into melodic richness, but within this group lies a much smaller subcategory of people who remind us why compositions, singing and melodies are themselves great things. Seiko is one of the these for me. This was not a conclusion I was swift to reach and it feels an unlikely one, as I couldn’t be further from her target audience: she has never been marketed as an export, she sings almost entirely in Japanese, her songs draw primarily on JPop and idol influences, and her lyrics are deeply rooted in the experiences of a young woman at odds with Japanese society. Nevertheless, her craft as a songwriter and the presence of her character have become hugely important to me over the last months. I’ve already written twice on her music, both times dissecting and critiquing it with a positive but largely impersonal attitude; I wrote those reviews because I believed that it would be good if they were written
. However, at this point I am so convinced of her value as an artist on a thoroughly personal level that I am writing because I believe this review cannot not be written
. As far as I’m concerned, anything I write on her from now on is less for my indulgence and analytical curiosity, and more because it matters
It matters because Oomori Seiko is the best thing to happen to pop in the last decade.
This is not an exaggeration and it is not JPop specific. No other solo artist or group in the Eastern or Western scene has shown anything close to the combined growth, innovation, character, authenticity, drive and raw songwriting talent as Seiko has in the run from her 2013 debut to this, her sixth full-length. That’s six albums in six years, on top of two compilations of reworkings (one stripped down, one amped up), a slew of songs written for other artists, the establishment of her own idol group, and an impressive live record. Most artists would have burned themselves over the course of this, but every one
of Seiko’s albums sounds as fresh and essential to her career as the one before. Part of this is down to her songwriting chops, which are as versatile as they are formidable, but it’s her vast personality and incisive lyrical talent that lift her music out of straightforward proficiency and into outright greatness. Seiko is complicated, prickly and confrontational in a way that can be hard to process; I initially mistook her bold, risky writing choices as ironic and provocative, but while the latter is definitely true on occasion there can be no understating how personally charged these songs are. She is one of those artists that thoroughly immerses themselves in their music, drawing as much on bitterness and depression as she does on a fierce, selfless sense of love (particularly for women). Both her lyrics and the tone of her compositions are deeply influenced by her apparent struggle to balance her positive visions for femininity and music against her complicated relationship with self-worth.
This is important - not just to her music, but to the very real impact she’s making on Japan’s music industry - but unlikely to convey itself immediately to listeners without translation sheets or a good grasp of Japanese. What does come across on an immediate, intuitive level is the sense of boundless generosity that comes from Seiko’s outpouring of herself into her music, perfectly captured in the overhead quote about her would-be miracle of cake. There is no extent to which I won’t vouch for the accuracy of this quote, and it becomes more apparent the further one digs into her work. Oomori Seiko is not the easiest sell to a Western audience; she doesn’t have the same crossover appeal to pop fans as Kyray Pamyu Pamyu or REOL, or the same attraction for rockers as Shiina Ringo or Haru Nemuri (although her work does touch on both). What she does have, in spades, is a tenaciously creative lyrical and musical drive that is instantly recognisable in any of her songs in a way that makes her discography easily among the most rewarding and exciting, if not the
most, of any artist to emerge in recent years.
While the history and development of her career are well worth covering from their inception, it’s equally worthwhile to frame them with reference to her latest album, Kusokawa Party
. This is because of all the albums she has released so far, this is the one that benefits the most from wider familiarity with her work and personality, making it a suitable encapsulation of all her past strengths. However, it’s worth mention that it’s arguably the worst place for first-time listeners to start; the wackiness and novelty value of Sennou
or the straightforwardly great pop of TOKYO BLACK HOLE
are far better starting points. Kusokawa Party
, on the other hand, tends towards an intense, fat-free style of songwriting that at once is deeply rooted in Seiko’s many idiosyncrasies as a personality and performer, but also takes very little time to provide overt exposition for these in the way her other albums do. It’s also full of stylistic traits likely to make anyone with even the slightest misgivings about JPop feel entirely justified as such: it opens
with a power ballad of ostensibly epic scope, at least four of these songs border on glam metal, and two others dip deep into the realm of club-ready synths and beats. However, recognising Seiko’s craft within these tracks leads the album to play out like a concentrated blast of everything that made her so great to begin with, with several new twists along the way. If Mahou ga Tsukaenainara, Shintai
framed her raw emotional side, Zettai Shoujo
mapped out her respective penchants for contrarianism and excess, TOKYO BLACK HOLE
demonstrated her knack for bold, succinct pop stormers, and kitixxxgaia
was a grandiose performance of political and gender metaphors, Kusokawa Party
takes elements of all five and wraps it up in a tracklist that is both her most concise and her most over-the-top to date. This album is
a party in tone, style and intent, and just like any other party it does not do well to rock up without a decent level of acquaintance with the host.
With all that taken into consideration, this album absolutely rips. From the moment opener Shinigami
explodes triumphantly, the first seven tracks speed by in a undeviatingly energetic and absolutely
danceable flurry full of memorable choruses and fun stylistic shifts. ZOC Jikkenshitsu
stands as the heaviest song in Seiko’s catalogue and 7:77
’s sky-high BPM count is nothing short of disorientating. GIRL’S GIRL
cuts liberally between different pop stylings with a precision unheard since Sennou
, while REALITY MAGIC
keeps things straightforward and clicks into gear as a brash dance banger. However, it’s Amoeba no Koi
that steals the show here - that song wraps up the drama and flourish toyed with in the past on songs like Magic Mirror
and Gutto Kuro SUMMER
into a mesmerising performance of overdrive and suspense that stands proudly beside her very best work. It’s right here that Seiko demonstrates unambiguously that she is still very much at the top of her game, but the most remarkable thing about this is how she makes something so self-evident feel like a revelation.
Speaking of the top of her game, one of Kusokawa Party
s most satisfying positives lies in Seiko’s voice, which has never sounded this good before. As always, she is nothing if not impassioned, but her tone has a new sense of polish that pays off in spades: Shinigami
, for instance, twists deeply bittersweet sentiments of misunderstanding and frustration into a sensationally uplifting hymn for humanity that almost rivals her early career highlight Saishū Kōen
in the sheer power of her voice. ZOC Jikkenshitsu
and Amoeba no Koi
see her reaching screamed intensities only touched on in the past, while Tokyo to Kyou
is a welcome reprise of the unpolished vocal style that defined her indie years and GIRL’S GIRL
introduces a compelling stream of consciousness rap style. In the past I often thought (somewhat harshly) that Seiko’s albums succeeded in spite of her voice, not because of it, but it’s finally an essential strength to her music in its tone as well as its personability. Or, in layman’s terms, it’s not just that we’re hearing the character of the woman who would dish out a whole world’s worth of whole cakes through her voice in these songs; her voice has become the cake
Furthermore, this album has considerable lyrical strength and even slight familiarity with this and Seiko’s past work in this department goes a long way. Perhaps the best example of the substance this adds to Kusokawa Party
is the chorus of GIRL’S GIRL
, which initially appears to be a ham-fisted explosion of gratingly anthemic synth pop juxtaposed against the song’s more elegant, urgent verses because why not
. However, upon closer inspection its chant that “Girls are the best/Girls are the worst” in conjunction with the verses’ bitter dissection of sexual hypocrisy and gender identity scans as an acerbic evolution of her early staple Zettai Kanojo
’s bubblegum mantra (“Girls, girls, girls are the best!”) into a edgy juxtaposition of exteriorised positivity and internalised misogyny. The once obnoxious chorus takes on a new level of grim irony in its radio-ready blare, and once you clock that Seiko caps it off with a sassy parting shot (“It’s not like I want you to get it, but really, how can you not get it？”) the song’s full value emerges in a deliciously bitter twist. Also notable is Shinigami
’s inversion of kitixxxgaia
’s self-stylisation as a revolutionary God into a grim reaper who shares the same undying drive for redemption and vitality despite her all-consuming hatred of humanity. The list goes on; Kusokawa Party
is full of deeply satisfying lyrical nods like this.
I’ve avoided mentioning the album’s tail-end as far as possible because it feels like an entity unto itself. After such a relentlessly upbeat pop spree, Seiko’s decision to stack all three ballads back-to-back at the end of the album is surely her biggest volte-face since Zettai Shoujo
opened with her two most palatable pop songs and then spent its remaining 40 minutes as a challenging folk-punk zigzag. The transition from 7:77
’s lightspeed metal to Tokyo to Kyou
’s unapologetic sparseness is a whiplash experience, and while not they’re not quite as understated as Tokyo to Kyou
, the final two tracks stay firmly in the same gear. These tracks are strong in their own right (Kimoi Kawa
in particular gets full marks for capping off the album’s lyrical themes in an anguished split between self-fashioning and self-loathing), but while I love Seiko’s audacity in deliberately fracturing her album so resolutely, something has to be said of the drawbacks forcing a listener at the peak of a unbridled party experience into an unannounced and extended comedown. Once the novelty has worn off, it risks making Kusokawa Party
as an end-to-end listen less appealing than playing its two halves through separately. While the album embraces its broken sequencing too confidently to be outright let down by it, it still stands as a flaw in full blatancy.
The shape of Kusokawa Party
, as a party followed by its burnout, is an apt reflection of the overtone of ugly-duckling awkward individuality that Oomori Seiko has explored, reviled and embraced in turn throughout her career. She sets the album in motion only to bring it to a brutal halt and withdraw into melancholic territory rather than offering a cohesive sense of resolution. It’s easy to view this as the kind of straightforward contrarianism so typical of her, but I think it’s also clear that she is absolutely uninclined to drop the ball at this point. This won’t be the last we hear from Seiko (who seems to have no intention of slowing down and has released several new songs since this album anyway), but for now she’s once again earned our suspense and anticipation for whatever exciting direction she goes in next. After all, at this point she’s past just tearing up the pop rulebook; her future is its future.