Review Summary: A subtly substantial cliché of yesterday's pop landscape that still stares confidently into the future
It feels strange to be writing on Perfume’s debut a full eleven years after its release. The career of the trio (formed by vocalists Nocchi, Kashiyuka and A-Chan), and (of course) their producer/songwriter Yasutaka Nakata has been well storied and even better cemented in both sales and stardom. Although their international success was eclipsed by that of sister-project Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, they are still representative of J-pop as a whole to many people. ‘Perfume’ is one-of those-names at this point, signalling a presence that spans far further than any of the group’s individual albums. It’s easy enough to see how they caught on; while Kyary’s quirky image chimed with every casual Western listener’s conception of Japanese fashion in all its meticulous brightness, Perfume align neatly with the stereotype of Japan as a cutting-edge site of technology and innovation. Their music and brand have always revolved around the futuristic and their aesthetic of all things blue and fluorescent is well matched by the robust, stylish attitude to electro-pop that Nakata evolved from release to release. Somewhat predictably, time has not been kind to Perfume over the last few years and their 2018 effort Future Pop
was heralded as a sign that their arc is incontravertibly on the wane - turns out you can only tap into the future for so long.
On the flip side, this unfortunate verdict does make it more interesting than ever to look back to the album that sparked everything off in the first place; if Perfume’s destiny was to be eclipsed by the same future they set out to capture, how clear is this fate at its inception? GAME
, by rights, should never have been a timeless record. It’s generally acknowledged that the first step in a sequence of innovations seldom produces a masterpiece, and with following albums such as Triangle
playing out like arms races determined to raise the stakes of production trickery and pop intrigue in every way imaginable, there’s more than a slight implication that Perfume’s debut was built in obsolescence. Viewed on paper, it seems disposed towards being either a necessary blueprint that future efforts would refine to perfection, or failing that, a dated pop cliché that has been cannibalised by their own expansive myth and influence to the effect that it would play out today just the same as any one of the many imitations of itself.
As it happens, GAME
is neither of these things. It does
sound dated in a range of ways that extend to both its contemporary innovations (e.g. selective incorporation of prominent house influences) and retro flourishes (good ol’ bitcrush), but listening to it today, it’s unexpectedly adroit in taking its more passé qualities in its stride. Plastic Smile
, for example, sounds a little past its prime in its choice of beats and exuberant staccato stylings, but it’s still above all a glorious rush of techno-pop giddiness that actively benefits from all the nostalgia of its late 00s disco stylings and deliciously thick bitcrushed synth-bass tones (a welcome presence throughout the album). Not all these dated elements are so resilient: some of Nakata’s vocal modulation sounds relatively archaic here, with a heavy autotune presence used more as a token futuristic texture than for substantial impact and occasionally clumsy instances of foregrounded vocal splicing (Ceramic Girl
). Some of his synth tones (particularly the saw-waves) also veer a little too far into what has now become relic territory and his four-to-the-floor prone beats sound fine
upon close inspection but are nothing you won’t have already heard goodness knows how many times by now. For the most part, however, GAME
is fortunate enough to be an album that smacks of the same kind of dated timelessness that runs through albums like Parallel Lines
. It’s difficult to gauge whether it will maintain this appeal, and it very much remains to be seen whether Polyrhythm
, for instance, will play out with the same kind of transhistorical sheen as Heart of Glass
with another decade behind it, but for now Perfume’s sound is still essential enough to our conception of late 00s/early 10s pop that it comfortably survives its glory years.
While the overall longevity of these production stylings is interesting and significant, they would only amount to so much were it not for the fact that GAME
is just as much a mood album as it is an exciting trend of the past. At the core of Perfume’s songwriting is an attitude best summarised as upbeat major-key repurposing of chords and motifs that would be more commonly encountered in minor-key lounge jazz. YouTuber/musician Adam Neely recently published an interesting video examining this tendency in Japanese music in general (with some specific reference to Perfume), but the gist of it that this album’s musical DNA is inherently bittersweet, despite its overall positive bent. Macaroni
and Baby Cruising Love
are the songs that most clearly exhibit this, but it’s a strong undertone that runs throughout the album. There can be no downplaying how much long-term weight this affords GAME
: it’s like a micropolarisation of mood swings that form a straightforward shape over the course of whole songs but carry deceptive complexity within individual notes. Compare the way the first and second lines in Baby Cruising Love
land: the two are almost identical iterations of a melody that would normally be associated with a melancholic or nostalgic piece (likely in Ionian), but while the first line plays out as such, the second features a different harmony on the last note and twists the same motif into a distinctly more uplifting hook. The play-off between these two iterations is infectious in its simplicity but brings a surprising amount of emotional nuance to what on first listen is a borderline asinine exhibition of repetitive pop. This technical detail hardly nudges Perfume into elite or (faux)intelligentsia territory, but it is symptomatic of the well-camouflaged depth and nuance that support GAME
’s particular brand of beat-happy cyclical electro-pop. With enough attention and repeat plays, these grace it with an unusually substantial atmosphere for a record that initially seems to cater exclusively to mass consumption, giving it a certain edge over Triangle
’s flashy anthems and Level3
’s driving dance sensibilities.
Another tendency that chimes with this is the way the album’s sequencing opens up gradually into less overtly poppy songwriting. The first five tracks are a clear statement of pop immediacy, but from this point onwards the album flirts increasingly with more expansive electronic landscapes. Butterfly
, for instance, feels more like a club mix than something you would find on an all-out pop album, whereas Take Me Take Me
could be mistaken as a sophisticated lounge track. It’s refreshing to see that Nakata’s attitude to Perfume’s brand as techno-pop is by no means complacent, and while his experiments into house influences leave the core trio with an ostensible amount of spare time at points, he still makes sure to anchor of these tracks in their motifs. Secret Secret
is perhaps the perfect balance of pop hooks and adventurous songwriting, and comes out as one the album’s most rewarding tracks in its willingness to couple more adventurous chord progressions and unpredictable arrangements with the some of the finest vocal hooks on offer here.
Just as it felt odd to open the book on GAME
so long after its release, it feels even stranger to leave it with a resolute conclusion. Perfume’s future-pop mission may have proved unsustainable in the long run, but the ideas at its root do seem to have carried beyond the here-and-now in surprisingly stable ways. Within a few years Nakata would have moved on from the bitcrushed stylings and electric production that had such a strong presence here and, to a lesser extent, on Triangle
, but these aspects now seem much more distinctive and exciting than his later, more polished fare. In any case, GAME
’s musical longevity and commercial shelf life have proved to be far better matched to one another than anyone might have expected, and having aged unexpectedly well so far, the signs would indicate that GAME
will continue to stand as a robust and worthwhile part of revisitable music history for some time to come.
Baby Cruising Love