Review Summary: A history of three poisons: Sanmon Gossip, Hi Izuru Tokoro, Sandokushi
Shiina Ringo brings the word ‘legacy’ to mind like few others. Over the last two decades, she’s gone from being from being a resolutely independent outsider to releasing two straight masterpieces, one a personal all-time favourite, the other a genre-redefining art-pop flourish. She’s had a worthwhile stint with her band Tokyo Jihen and a respectable return to her solo work with 2009’s jazz-pop tangle Sanmon Gossip, but it’s the force of her early years that brought her such legendary status in and out of Japan. She’s one of the most revered Japanese artists in the West and for good reason - but how does this extend to her work today？ The Shiina Ringo of the 2010s has become more iconic than prolific, but the pedestal we associate with her still carries the gravitas of her most fully-realised artistic accomplishments, which in turn has created a very forgiving attitude among her fanbase, exemplified by the reception of her 2014 album, Hi Izuru Tokoro. This release was a deeply inconsistent and occasionally vapid affair with just enough patches of solid songwriting and upbeat performance to reward the many concessions made on its behalf. “Shiina Ringo is allowed to have a token worst album because if that’s still pretty good, what does it say about her other work？” we reasoned. As apologism goes, Hi Izuru Tokoro only demanded a modest amount of spin and was packaged fairly neatly into Shiina’s wider discography. Her legend, so it seemed, was safe for another half-decade.
And along came Sandokushi
Now, before things get gritty, I would like to make clear that this album should not represent an open-closed case study of excitement or disappointment. It’s not without depth and there’s a good deal surrounding its conception and release that calls for reflection. The title, which references a relationship between the progress of history and the respective corrupting forces of desire, ill will, and ignorance, suggests a conceptual trajectory that has long been absent from Shiina’s work, and the music video for Niwatori to Hebi to Buta
alone is a goldmine of striking imagery that is doubtless full of significant associations. This album also had the prospect of a range of collaborations with extremely respected musicians including Number Girl/Zazen Boys’ Shutoku Mukai and BUCK-TICK’s Atsushi Sakurai, which suggest a wealth of possibilities and definite point of intrigue. All things considered, Sandokushi was poised to take its own specific place in Shiina Ringo’s discography, and there is still a certain amount of digging to be done into its themes and aesthetic.
Unfortunately, these considerations seem outright trivial compared to the devastating weight of mediocrity carried by almost all the actual music here. It’s hard to find a place to start, but the superficial aspects can be checked off immediately: most songs are either distressingly bland or glaringly underdeveloped, the sequencing is a dysfunctional mess, the arrangements are packed with too many instruments playing too few memorable motifs, the production is insipid mush, there’s a worrying amount of terrible auto-tuned vocal tracks, and when we can hear her natural voice (which, to be fair, is most of the time), Shiina herself sounds plain bored. This latter is a new low within her work; even Hi Izuru Tokoro’s most uninspired numbers were at least delivered with enough vocal oomph to see them through from start to finish, but Sandokushi frequently sounds like she’s become her own session vocalist and is secretly over the whole project.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on TOKYO
, Kemono Yuku Hosomichi
and Kamisama, Hotokesama
, which sit around the bottom of the pile of her ever-growing portfolio of dull tributes to the heyday of 30s swing. Ma chérie
is cut from similar cloth, but gets into its gear considerably more convincingly and makes for an early highlight, if early highlights are to be allocated and you can stomach the nauseating opening lines (en français, bien sûr). This track is followed by the Sakurai duet Kakeochisha
, an extremely clumsy outing of synth-happy industrial rock that drops like a stone in sequencing but gets full marks for unexpectedness and general bombast. It’s around here that I start to remember how Shiina Ringo once had a knack for empowering these qualities through her craft; at this point it’s just a relief that they’re present at all for novelty value. This attitude is vindicated later on by Isogaba Maware
, which, according to the long-standing symmetrical codex of Shiina Ringo tracklists, just so happens to be Kakeochisha
’s sequencing partner. Or whatever. What this means is that both tracks come from a similar school of ham-fisted hard rock, but whereas Kakeochisha
was at least interesting as a bold experiment, Isogaba Maware
is gratingly uninteresting, commanding a level of tedium that the second shortest track on any album is quite frankly not entitled to.
While many of these misfortunes are vastly underwhelming, none of them are a patch on the album’s most egregious blight. Nagaku Mijikai Matsuri
is guilty of every cliché of a bad pop song, let alone a bad Shiina Ringo song, along with perhaps the most irritating example of persistent and unironic autotune I have heard in my cherished millennial life. Further disadvantages include being the inconveniently longest song on the album and the awkwardness of yet another shoehorned collaboration. It would stand very favourable odds of being my least favourite song of 2019 so far if it wasn’t pulled onto the tracklist from a single realise all the way back in 2015, which relegates it to a special circle of hell reserved only for the most depraved of time-travelling offenders and misadventures in plastic. Its sole saving grace is the bathos that Coca Cola paid real life cash money (and presumably a lot of it) to use it for an advertising campaign around its time of release. Let no-one say that age has been unkind to Shiina.
Anyway, following on directly on from Nagaku Mijikai Matsuri
is Part II of the 2015-released sin bin, Shijou no Jinsei
. This one, however, can be largely forgiven, as it is far and away the most fully-realised and likeable song here aside for the aforementioned Ma chérie
. Shiina makes an unexpected return to the grunge-flavoured rock melodicism of her early years, and for once the songwriting is well enough fleshed out that we finally get a sense of an experienced musician deploying a craft she has long since honed to perfection. It also helps that the arrangement is confined to the relative minimalism of a traditional rock line-up, dodging the bullet of needless excess that plagues almost every other song here. It’s not a great
song per se - a quick return to Mellow
confirms as much, in production more than anything else - but it is refreshing to hear Shiina Ringo playing straight-up alt rock in 2019, even if it is by way of four years in the past.
To follow through on this positive(-ish) note, the bookending tracks are far and away the most exciting things here compositionally and probably the most daring territory she has explored since the days of Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana. Closer Anoyo no Mon
in particular jumps directly into an enormously dramatic flourish of backing vocals and genuinely menacing brass. The song shifts gears into a respectable outro section but carries the haunting shadow of its first section to its close and beyond, wrapping up the album in unexpectedly disarming style. Opener Niwatori to Hebi to Buta
is not quite as powerful but is equally dramatic, playing out like an artier version of Björk’s Play Dead
. Regrettable auto-tune and overly concise pacing let this one down, but it’s a fair start to the album either way. Both these tracks suffer from evoking an epic scope and then failing to flesh it out to its full extent within their relatively cursive runtimes, but unlike most of Sandokushi’s miscalculations of this kind, the half-baked sense here is frustrating because these songs’ potential really does seem momentous and innovative, if only briefly.
But, alas, self-contained analysis of the music here is only the beginning of this album’s woes. The real
problem here is that in addition to its own, many failings, Sandokushi showcases the flaws that have undercut everything Shiina has done since Sanmon Gossip to such an overt and unmitigated degree that it requires a particularly tenacious brand of fandom (which I no longer possess) not to view the last decade of her career without an overwhelming overtone of regret. Don’t get me wrong, Sanmon is still fun and often exciting and Hi Izuru Tokoro is still catchy and sometimes irresistible, but if Sandokushi signifies anything, it’s that the trajectory Shiina Ringo has committed to (perhaps irreversibly) is so obnoxiously fixated on vapid production, overstuffed arrangements, cut-and-paste showtunes, and occasional experimentation less cutting edge and more out of touch botch that this phase of her career can only be mapped on a spectrum of increasing calamity. This is at the root of my preoccupation with legacy; it’s easy enough to forgive an artist for a significant mishap in the wake of an exemplary career, for a disjointed mess of regrettable singles, mediocre collaborations and disposable filler to indicate unambiguously that that artist was barking up the wrong tree for ten fucking years
？ Part of the whole artiste/legacy complex that surrounds Shiina Ringo is a sense of timelessness greatly facilitated by the generous stretches of time between her most ‘recent’ albums, and this has done her an increasing amount of favours over the last few years. Therefore, to put things in perspective, here is a brief and non-exhaustive list of Various Exciting Things That Have Happened To J-Pop Over The Course Of The Second Phase Of Shiina Ringo’s Solo Career, ranked in increasing order of awkwardness in relation to Sandokushi:
(1) Elusive oddball Etsuko Yakushimaru carves out a popular niche in indie-pop with her band Soutaisei Riron and releases a progressive pop solo album full of unexpected mood shifts, genre shifts and compelling anime tie-ins.
(2) Goto Mariko returns from obscurity, assists newcomer Haru Nemuri in jump-starting her career in noise-pop, and takes an unlikely but hugely entertaining plunge into raising hell over ultra-synthetic backing tracks.
(3) Electro-pop unit REOL drop a 2016 album full of straight bangers that make extensive use vocal modulations and of slickly integrated stylistic crossovers in a manner that virtually redefines the scope of trigger-happy production in contemporary pop.
(4) Supported by Yasutaka Nakata’s autotune-friendly creative vision, Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu launch into respective future-pop and decora stardoms, sweeping mass followings along with them.
(5) Oomori Seiko explodes from indie folk obscurity into a fierce alt-pop heroine, releasing six consistent albums in six years, every one of which contains a similar sense of volatility and independence to that which all but disappeared from Shiina’s work after Heisei Fuuzoku. It’s not unfair to say that Seiko has done for the 10s what Shiina did for the 00s.
(6) Utada fucking Hikaru of all people, perhaps the most wholesome, unthreatening presence in J-pop whose career has long been held as complementary and contemporary to Shiina’s, returns from a lengthy hiatus with a pair of well respected albums that play to her strengths unpretentiously and rewardingly, and to cap it off, her comeback album Fantôme includes none other than a Shiina Ringo vocal feature on an immediately likeable track comfortably stronger than anything on this album.
Now, none of the above obviate or diminish Shiina Ringo’s many great achievements, but they do make it brutally apparent that she no longer commands anything near the same level of untouchable prestige that her original cult status and exemplary songwriting, and more recent collaborations with Japanese football broadcasters and Coca Cola advertisements might lead some to believe. I’m not minded to take the entitled approach of how-dare-she-release-something-this-atrocious; Sandokushi frustrates me, but it shouldn’t be a source of outrage. It’s a bad album for a range of cogent and often unsurprising reasons, but this quiet acceptance that Shiina Ringo has been on the way down for quite some time is more devastating than any individual moment of cringe on this tracklist. I’m not minded to give up on Shiina or fully discount the prospect of a return to form, but it’d be cognitive dissonance to expect anything exceptional from her at this point. The best way to treasure her legacy, then, is to take this phase of her career for what it is and accept how starkly it deviates from the enigmatic young woman who blew apart the possibilities of pop music in the early 00s. Those years are never coming back, and if there’s one thing we can take from this tragic botch of an album, it’s that it’s high time to make peace with that fact.