Review Summary: A true summer album, in full shade and sunshine
I don’t know about you, but I find myself full of misgivings whenever summer comes around. Call it a overbearing marketing job, but there’s something about the expectation to associate potentially unextraordinary months of your life with sensationalised「Good Times」that makes me weary in advance. Not to mention the hours and hours and hours of sunlight. Ugh. I don’t ask for much as a night owl, but there are points mid-year where it’d would be a real blessing if the earth’s rotation could put things on hold for a short while; living in Scotland places me far enough up the northern hemisphere to get a frankly inconvenient paucity of total darkness (say, four hours？) as June winds its way towards the summer solstice. As such, it’s a real relief when July comes around and restores a reasonable pattern of daylight hours while retaining various sunny benefits. I don’t necessarily prefer nighttime, but it can be a real relief when an overlong hot day has the decency to burn itself out and hand things over to some well-earned coolness. This burnout/cool-off duality is an integral part of summer for me; I associate it as much with heat and laugher and sunshine and joyful times outdoors as I do with its late evening state of warm gloom and twilight, and I enjoy it most when the two seem most in sync with one another. This isn’t just a weather preference either: many of summer’s most euphoric highs often have a moodier follow-on one way or another as they get swallowed by the nostalgic middle distance. It’s no coincidence that many of the albums I associate most with summer have an air of transience or maudlin behind their exultant or excitable overtones (The Slider, Doolittle and Highvision all being excellent examples). Long story short, it’s crass to call summer overrated but it’s fraught with a deep ambivalence despite (and sometimes as a direct result of) its endless sensationalisation.
It’s for this reason that Sakanaction’s latest offering, 834.194 couldn’t have had a more timely release. A saccharine indie-pop double album split loosely between upbeat dance tunes in its first half and mellow indie smoulderings in its second, it is rich with the spirit of summer in an immediately graspable manner with deeper resonance. This is in part because even its most exuberant sections are full of an easygoing spirit of face-value fun that avoids the stifling concertedness easily associated with Enjoyable Summer Albums With Huge Dance Numbers, but the main reason is that the progression from one disc to the other feels entirely appropriate for that point of the summer where shade and coolness are as precious and wonderful as heat and sunshine. By its general outline, however, the album hardly presents a revolutionary premise: artists have been trading moods across separate halves of double albums since time immemorial. Hell, even this year Aimer took a pretty respectable stab at a upbeat/melancholic switch-off this year with her paired albums Sun Dance and Penny Rain. 834.194, however, distinguishes itself in the way its two halves feel deeply codependent rather than conveniently complementary in the way of Aimer’s latest. While they have their own distinct qualities, its first and second discs are not strictly polarised and feel very much like two sides of the same seasonal coin; 834.194 forms a cohesive whole and its internal exchange of moods captures that inevitable sense of summertime ambivalence quite deftly.
Summer notwithstanding, a closer point of explanation for 834.194 can be found in Supercar’s near-classic 2000 album, Futurama. While not technically a double album, Futurama was a gargantuan outpouring of ideas structured very coherently while gradually phasing out of the wide-eyed brightness of its opening songs into a denser, more introspective second half. 834.194 has its own distinguishing factors (Sakanaction nod towards funk immediacy where Supercar fleshed out their sound with shoegaze and electronic palettes), but I think there’s more that unites these albums than sets them apart. Epitomised both musically and lyrically by one of its many standout songs, Karma, Futurama had a deep-rooted sense of ambivalence that balanced euphoric highs with draining come-downs. Sakanaction draws on this too but with a separate nuance: in its affinity for the kind of easygoing synthpop you would hear from the the likes of Suiyoubi no Campanella, 834.194 doesn’t immediately acknowledge the melancholic haze that Futurama engaged with from the get-go.
This gives the sense that when its energy and exuberance do eventually unravel into wearier sounds, they do so by virtue of their own unsustainability; 834.194 is both the cause and consequence of its own burnout, as opposed to capturing a bleaker mood as externally observed. This means that first half of the album has no need to showcase self-awareness or anticipate change of tone; the latter follows on naturally and the former would only be an obstruction for the easy-spirited dance appeal the album initially shoots for. It also means that when later tracks like Wonder World and Hachisu no Hana dip their toes into upbeat qualities reminiscent of the first disc, the way they ultimately progress into more lethargic territory seems both apt and inevitable; the album has already telegraphed that the party’s over, and these songs acknowledge it tastefully. Eureka and Nylon no Ito are especially notable in this regard as they’re made of the same chords and rhythms that might drive a larger than life indie-pop banger, but they keep themselves in check, building gradually to the effect that when they do kick into gear, they carry a sense of understatement and reserve that acknowledges their transient qualities as much as their expansive scope.
This pretty much sets the scene for 834.194, but it doesn’t quite catch the full sense of two qualities particularly significant to it. The first (and for many listeners, the most important) is exactly how much a critical proportion of this album bangs. Tabun, Kaze, 「Kikitakatta Dance Music, Liquid Room ni」and Kagerou in particular are ferocious earworms with just the right balance of rhythmic catchiness and non-overbearing danceability to be summertime mainstays, and I’ll be damned if Eureka doesn’t make for a toe-tapping unwinding anthem. The album’s first disc in general is full of smartly sequenced indie-funk gems that will reward as much attention is afforded to them and set up the second disc’s unravelling well enough for that portion of the album to feel like a satisfying response. Any listener on the hunt for 「Good Times」of the palatable and unstrenuous variety will find their itches placidly scratched here.
The album’s second further quality, conversely, is how deceptively predictably it plays out to begin with. Nothing here comes off as particularly striking, challenging or ostensibly innovative, and the catchiness of the aforementioned tracks seems considerably less impressive under the incorrect but initially understandable impression that their danceability is the only thing the album has going for it. As it turns out, the catchy songs are just the icing on the cake of 834.194’s most craftful quality, namely the seamlessness of its shift in tone. Sakanaction set out to keep things firmly accessible rather than to take ostensive risks: a seemingly unambitious mission statement, but deceptively difficult to pull off. Holding an audience’s attention for almost ninety minutes with tracks as slick and unaudaciously palatable as these is no mean feat, and so the chief factor threatening 834.194’s success has little to do with the band’s knack for crafting individual songs and much more to do with how well they sustain a mood throughout its playtime. Consequentially, I can see first-time listeners finding themselves near its tail end after a cursive first inspection and growing tired of perceived sameiness, but, with a closer listen or greater familiarity with the album’s finer detail, you’ll just as easily check yourself at the same place, remember the grooves that opened the album, and suddenly wonder “wait…how did I get here？” before realising that here is perhaps the most logical place that those opening tracks could have led to. 834.194 therefore lands in the odd position of being as likely to be praised for its expansive scope as it is to be detracted for a sense of perceived homogeneity. The summertime predicament rears its head once again here, that season also having to balance the expectation of being effortlessly enjoyable with the risk of ending up as drearily persistent.
Unfortunately, while it can easily be a moot point to criticise a double album for excess, 834.194 has several points at which fat could easily have been trimmed. The most obvious of these is the Shotaro Aoyama remix of Eureka, which pops up towards the end of the first disc well in advance of the original track. Although this track is something of a turning point for the album as a whole, marking a pronounced wind-down from the upbeat songs that precede it, it’s a more drastic shift of gears than is really required, accomplishing very little in its overlong runtime that the A-side closer September - Tokyo Version wouldn’t have managed on its own. Speaking of which, the decision to close each disc with a different version of the song is something I feel mixed about. On the one hand, it’s quite satisfying how the two versions’ different flavours are in line with the album’s cohesion and subtle progression; on the other hand, the steady rapture of Sayonara wa Emotion followed by the long ambient wind-down of the title track would have been a perfectly adequate closer and September - Sapporo Version feels more like an epilogue (or even a bonus track) as a result. Whether or not this is worthwhile depends on the listener, but it certainly doesn’t do the album’s encroachment on bloated territory any favours.
All things considered, however, Sakanaction do a solid job of stringing things together with a consistency of songwriting that approaches the cohesiveness of their sequencing and mood. 834.194 may seem somewhat unapproachable in its scope, but it has an easy accessibility that swiftly mitigates this for those happy to take the plunge; after all, as much as it can be a drag to put up with a whole season’s worth of summertime pleasures, it’s not like anyone keeps an eye on the clock when the right moments come around.