Review Summary: latest J-pop queen makes catchy album with fiesty lip; pasta for all.
Aimyon is probably the biggest pop star in the world you've never heard of. Renowned for pioneering digital music in Japan and riding a meteoric rise to success over the last couple of years, she's already made it as a domestic name despite being only 25 years old and having zero to do with the idol industry. She might have shot to the top so swiftly that the Western musicverse has hardly had a chance to cotton on, but if you borrow your company jet and head far enough towards the rising sun, you’ll find that Aimyon is it
right now. The full scale of this didn't hit me until my work in a Japanese school forced me to expand my pool of recognisable pop icons for the sake of fuelling structured conversations. There've been a few hits (Park Jimin, Shinzo Abe) and a few misses (Queen Elizabeth II), but Aimyon attracts recognition and attention like few other names. Mention Shiina Ringo in front of a room of teenagers and you'll get a couple of vague nods; mention Utada Hikaru and you'll get a general air of recognition that no-one seems eager to verbalise; mention Aimyon and every student and teacher within earshot will perk up a little because now
we're speaking 2020.
So, I guess, welcome to Japan ver. post-Olympic postponement Pasta Pop, where the big questions gripping the nation are: what makes Aimyon successful, what makes her special, and is her new album any good? Well! A solid chunk of her appeal rests on her image being clean and her songs family friendly, but this is supported by a moody, independent edge that goes a long way in the Oricon chart's thoroughly sanitised genkiverse. Aimyon is Aimyon; she's a distinct voice within her native pop landscape, yet she fits that well-precedented balance of youthful sincerity and dignified stardom so easily that her success is self-explanatory. That distinct voice isn’t just for show; Aimyon has a rare knack for imbuing highly accessible song templates with a confrontational and occasionally acerbic undertone. The deadpan sarcasm of Oishii Pasta ga Aru to Kiite
(I Heard There's Delicious Pasta)'s title/artwork combination is as clear an example as any of this, but it extends to her lyrics, which present breakdowns of testy relationships and romantic ambivalence in complex yet clearly articulated terms. Aimyon might seem as inviting as they come, but there's something dissatisfied and faintly corrosive in her penmanship that breaks out in occasional vocal inflections and underpins her otherwise bright-eyed music with enough grit to substantiate them all the way to star value. In the scheme of Oricon, that counts for special, and Aimyon owns her ambivalent tone so naturally that she can hardly be viewed otherwise.
A solid platform, then, but is this enough to make Oishii Pasta ga Aru to Kiite
a strong outing for anyone unprepared to dig into the Japanese or to map their own comparisons with Aimyon's shallower chart-topping contemporaries? I'd say so; these songs hardly cross the threshold into extraordinary territory, but this is certainly one of the better commercial pop experiences you'll get from any artist of any nationality this year. It's palatable in that easier-than-breathing way that belongs almost exclusively to good chart pop, and the tracklist plays out as one brisk earworm another. These songs are mostly centred around brisk vocal melodies and Aimyon's straightforward but competently paced acoustic strumming, with overlapping elements of band accompaniment. This is epitomised by "Harunohi", a five-minute digest of everything you can expect from her tone, choice of hooks and delivery style. It's an instant winner in most ways, though perhaps a little derivative of whatever familiar listeners would expect from an Aimyon song; if it effectively plays out like a sequel to "Marigold", then this is just a reflection of how equally essential that track is to her canon.
Aimyon has clearly found her comfort zone, but she knows how to pull enough changes of pace and tone to keep a good thing going. Take the flow from "Asahi"'s snappy back-and-forth into "Hadaka no Kokoro"'s subdued balladry into "Mashimaro"'s upbeat pop rock, into "Sora no Aosa wo Shiru Hito yo"'s midtempo Judy and Mary-ish stadium majesty; there's nothing revolutionary about this sequencing, but Aimyon hardly needs to tear up the rulebook for these tracks to bring out the best of each other. The nearest thing to a revolution is "Manatsu no Yoru no Nioi ga Suru", by far the most stylistically bold track on the album, trading cabaret-esque verses off against a belter of a chorus that thoroughly epitomises the wide-eyed nostalgic abandon that this kind of J-pop lives and dies by. Most of the album draws from this appeal to some degree, but it's a thrill to hear Aimyon plunge into it headlong on a song this dynamic.
"Manatsu no Yoru..." is a great example of another of the album's key facets: even the breeziest of its hooks have claws. This song catches Aimyon warily to'ing and fro'ing between self-assured loneliness and the uncertainty of a chance romantic encounter, weighing the odds with a mindset that urges caution one moment and entertains high stakes and heaven-or-hell drama the next. Both sides stand out for their willingness to dissect the titular Midsummer Night in unflattering detail rather than indulging in it with your typical pop whimsy. The full title, continually recalled throughout the verses, is telling here: The Smell of a Midsummer Night, or (preserving word order) Midsummer-Night Smell. Aimyon refuses to present that conventionally romantic scene in and of itself and instead saddles it as an epithet to perhaps the basest of sensory instincts with knowing crassness. Everything that will or won't go down on the night in question is framed within the eye and/or nose of the beholder, only this particular beholder is both incisive and self-aware. She sustains intrigue with her lyrical perspective and flair for simple melodies far more than her vanilla pop foundation or familiar subject matter, and no track demonstrates this better than "Asahi", a deliciously feisty barrage of misgivings and retorts aimed at an unreliable lover. This track shows off her mastery of snappy vocal inflections while using a repeated verb structure to juggle conjugations and dish out four almost interchangeable but equally - and appropriately - inadequate approximations to the state of being in love within five seconds in the ultra-concise chorus. Aimyon knows her craft, and whichever sparky-but-sarky champions have repped it in the past, it's a joy to see that torch in her hand today.
All things considered, Oishii Pasta ga Aru to Kiite
is a delight for the 2020 pop landscape and an encouraging step forward for Aimyon. It raises the bar from her patchy 2019 release Shunkanteki Seventh Sense
and lands her in territory where she can be comfortably viewed as something much more than a singles artist with a strong personality. It's as user-friendly and conventionally packaged as vanilla and/or J-pop comes, but solid songwriting, memorable hooks and a pervasive air of authenticity round it off as a winner. Whether or not she'll own the future remains to be seen, but if Aimyon is the sound of the here and now, I guess life could be worse.