Review Summary: Where's my toilet paper: Confinement Pop
You don't hear much pop music about stir craziness. Pop is about giving people what they want - who wants to be stir crazy?! The ‘pop’ in, um, pop
doesn’t come from forcing your audience to confront undesirable thoughts or feelings; it comes from tapping into aspects of shared experience that they are ready and willing to see validated. Stir craziness is about internalising energy in an unexpressed, individually centred and ultimately unhealthy manner; why would people en masse want to be validated in tha
2020 being what it is, nobody needs a recap of the many, many reasons why it’s a bit of an imperative to confront multiple months’ worth of latent stir craziness some time around right now
. Varying periods of varying levels of confinement have drastically altered the lifestyles of literally everybody, and so it’s only natural for a certain measure of cooped-up, unreleased energy to pass from between their four walls to studios across the world, and back again. Zombie-Chang's new album TAKE ME AWAY FROM TOKYO
isn’t the first pop record made during or in direct response to quarantine, and she’s not the first artist to eye up the unabating, skin-crawling restlessness that we can all identify so easily within ourselves. Charli XCX touched on this with her latest release How I’m Feeling Now
, most notably in its misplaced club banger of an opener and the highlight track “Claws”, a volatile overload of romantic feelings that could and would not adapt to lockdown asceticism. She found a ready audience of critics and fans alike; people, shock horror, found it easy to identify with volatile outpourings of energy that seemingly had nowhere else to go.
However, unlike the plastic packaging that smothers much of How I’m Feeling Now
- and, really, unlike anything else I’ve heard this year - TAKE ME AWAY FROM TOKYO
is almost brutally forthright in how it confronts the more unsettling side of isolation. Zombie-Chang doubles down on claustrophobia, swaps her melodies for caustic synth hits and adrenalised dissonance, and superimposes her bubbly persona over a dehumanised wasteland to bring us a warped portrait of solitude that makes for perhaps the most acerbic and uncomfortably infectious pop record of the year.
It's a lot.
I want to call TAKE ME AWAY FROM TOKYO
an acquired taste, but if so, it's one that we've already got under our skin; the most challenging part of the record isn't its intrusive anti-melodies or its often mechanical aesthetic, it's the familiarity with which Zombie-Chang's dissociated fever dreams call out to our own, be them the un-reality of maintaining an existence in online limbo (“Respawn”), the awful jittery stasis of getting aimlessly wired ("Caffeine and Nicotine"), or the plain absurdity of not being able to come to terms with whatever the hell is going on ("Je ne sais pas"). Chang's perspective is warped enough that the entire outside world descends into arbitrariness, so much so that the “TOKYO” of the album title becomes a kind of reverse synecdoche for the four walls of her apartment, no longer representative of anything beyond a space of immediate confinement. Moreover, like any convincing nightmare, the album develops its musical palette faster than the listener can fully adjust to it, and at barely over half an hour, it hardly sticks around, packing in enough hooks to keep things grounded even at its most erratic.
To this end, the single “Snooze” is a case study. This track is the stuff of the over-caffeinated dread that sinks in as you blink at an unnatural rate and realise that your bedroom walls have somehow moved a fraction closer to the most vulnerable parts of your suddenly quite small body that has remained immobile in the same chair for the past six hours doing who-can-remember-what . With its melting pot of competing synth leads, its depersonalised French soundbytes and a vocal performance so ephemeral that it's a wonder it doesn't disintegrate entirely in such a chaotic arrangement, this track is a mechanical hellscape that mercilessly captures that paralytic everything-is-wrong state of being abruptly jolted out of inertia at minimal notice.
In its uniquely twisted way, "Snooze" is also a firm bop, but 'paralytic' is hardly a glowing endorsement for a key track on a supposedly danceable album. This is where the title track "Take Me Away From Tokyo" comes in, a no-nonsense banger that would comfortably rule the floor at club nights past or future. With its get-up-and-go four-to-the-floor and refreshingly tangible melodies, it’s a release of sorts for us and Zombie-Chang alike, but by no means a serene one. Everything about this track is fiercely impatient, from its unforgiving tempo to its jagged synth tones to the forcefulness of its lategame key change. Its structure and pacing may be less challenging than "Snooze", but this track is undercut by exactly the same unstable energy that was given free rein on that track. It makes the title lyric seem like a diplomatic understatement when it emerges as a chorus mantra; Zombie-Chang might as well be fervently whispering get me the fuck out of here
while making disturbing levels of eye contact. Wherever here
may be, who knows - who cares! Chances are you’ll feel the same by the final chorus.
The rest of the album can be interpolated between “Snooze”’s eruption of disjointed restlessness and “Take Me Away From Tokyo”’s overzealous slamdown; both sides are equally cogent to the album’s wider mission to make you feel like you should be doing something - anything - other than sitting comfortably in your seat while listening to it (goodness what this is like with headphones). “Respawn” and “Gold Trance” flesh out the middle ground as bleached-out rave fuel, mechanical to a fault in their joyless beat onslaught. Given how much dehumanised awfulness both sides of the album's spectrum conjure so frequently, it’s somewhat critical to note how much character Zombie-Chang manages to imbue here; this album may be at the end of its tether, but it’s too personable to land as a bottom-of-the-barrel doomscape. From the instantly iconic opening lyric (Where’s my toilet paper?
) to her sassy French deadpan in the titular refrain of “Je ne sais pas” to the goofball levity of the adorable mellow showstopper “Giant Panda”, she continually reasserts that the album’s harshness is never wholly mechanical.
Honestly, it’s a lot more disturbing for this. Zombie-Chang might present enough of herself to give the album a human touch, but when the robotic nothingness that each of these tracks grapples with starts to creep into her own voice, it carries a rare sense of dread, as though we're confronted with a ghost trapped in her own machine. For instance, the mantra of Odoru! un-deux-trois (one-two-three dance!)
that recurs throughout “Je ne sais pas”’ starts out as a blithe hook but is reiterated to oblivion by the end of the track, as though each enunciation, though separately voiced, is an identical recurrence of the same soundbyte. Say a word too many times and it loses all meaning, and subjecting a call to dance to this treatment over a four-to-the-floor beat is an accurate snapshot of the album’s scope: it fixates on the prospect of dance as a potential act of relief at the same time as it strips all life from it.
Where does that leave Zombie-Chang? Where does it leave us? Goodness only knows. The album challenges us to locate traces of personality in a wasteland of dissociation and pent up stress, and the implications of this fragmentary snapshot of her own humanity are far from shallow. The cyborg touches to her face in the artwork aren’t just for show; there’s a firm implication of undergoing lasting changes as a result of the ongoing state explored here. As anyone can tell you, dissociation doesn’t undo itself overnight; how or when do we hope to return to some form of Normal? We might take Zombie-Chang’s decision to close the album with a tranquil single released a month prior to Japan’s state of emergency as a glimmer of hope, but I think it’s wiser to view it as a wary reminder to “remember who you were” rather than a promise of assurance. It’s sobering stuff - or as sobering as an album with that
opening lyric can get - but if she’s reticent to dish out optimism, Zombie-Chang does at least have the good grace to tide us over with the freshest earworms and uncomfortable levels of energy for the time being. Fingers crossed we won’t need them too badly.
Now can someone please fix this lady some toilet paper.