Review Summary: Ichiko Aoba and the winds of change
Today we will talk about Ichiko Aoba's new album Adan no Kaze
, a.k.a. Windswept Adan
. Okay. There is a lot to unpack here, whether for returning listeners excited and/or sceptical over her biggest change of sound in years (perhaps ever), or for a potentially equal number of people who had barely heard of her prior to this record.
Let's take it from the top: Ichiko Aoba is a Japanese singer-songwriter who makes beautiful, typically minimalist folk music with a highly creative, occasionally stream-of-consciousness writing approach and an instantly recognisable performance style. She has coasted off steady critical prestige and increasing levels of public recognition for a decade now, and so her recent popularity boom is no surprise; many will view it as long overdue. However, it's interesting that her apparent breakthrough record is not 2018's qp
, essentially a perfect average of everything she had done up until that point, but rather this album. Adan no Kaze
sees her turning over a new leaf, splitting composition credits with Taro Umebayashi of Yuri on Ice
fame and fleshing out a style of chamber folk that softly repolarises her sound in quite fundamental ways. For anyone going in blind, this album will likely feel at once too relaxed and grounded to be a shake-up, and while this is a fair testament to its meticulously even of pacing and overall gentleness, it would do well to frame it in terms of the longstanding DNA of the Ichiko Aoba sound.
For anyone already familiar with Aoba, there’s an elephant in the room here: none of this record’s fresh insertions are individually intrusive, but something is most certainly missing. Let’s rewind. Each of Aoba’s previous works was marked by an incredible feeling of singularity that ran between her voice, her guitar, the ambience of whatever space she recorded in. She balanced an understated performance style with an exclusively focal role as a performer in a way that gave her this fay, evasive but almost ineffably intimate sense of presence
. This was the breath of life that elevated her music from cerebral folk treatises or interchangeable background comfort into something often uniquely resonant; it gave scope to her meanderings, voice to her melodies, shape to her contours, and character to her reticence. Drawing on past classics, "Ikinokori Bokura” on paper is twee coffee-shop noodling, while “Umibe no Soretsu" is a tepid dirge; in Aoba's hands, the former has the quaintness and poise of the most charming daydreams, while the latter is as stirring and poignant as the passing of time itself. Through this presence and delivery, it was as though her music inhabited its own private reality, a space so intimate that any connection the listener made with it was accordingly intimate, and it is difficult to stress the value of this to anyone who yet to spend their own time with those works.
Adan no Kaze
is a different kettle of fish. Its small-ensemble chamber folk arrangements have overtaken Aoba's omnifocal singularity as the driving force behind her music, and so it does not feel like an Ichiko Aoba
record as we have come to understand that category, but rather a case of both Ichiko Aoba and other musicians happening to perform on a particularly delicate contemporary folk record, as we already understand that category. This is not necessarily a criticism: Aoba's decision to move decisively away from her old sound will be an exciting development for many, and even writing as someone who would happily have listened to an indefinite number of qp
reiterations, it was perhaps doubtful whether she really had much left to say with it. And yet, departures are never just departures and Adan no Kaze
immediately risks starting on the back foot. Newcomers will hopefully understand by now why there is an imperative to scrutinise these seemingly innocuous chamber arrangements both within and beyond their own terms, so let's go there. What have you got, Adan no Kaze
? What made it worth throwing out a style almost everybody was ready to agree was perfect?
The immediate answer to this lies in the album’s vast polish and continuity. With the possible minor exception of 2016's Mahoroboshiya
, this is the first Ichiko Aoba album that truly feels like a studio record; the lush production and layering of arrangements deserves significant credit for establishing the album’s tone, while the individual songs run together with an entirely new sense of cohesion. Tracks on past efforts seemed to inhabit the same space like different rooms under the same roof; on Adan no Kaze
, examining them individually often feels like trying to measure a flowing river with a meter ruler. This continuity is perfectly suited to the practicalities of LP pacing, using the format to mould itself into a shape that you could viably view as a single, lightly segmented stretch of music. On that basis, I suppose the singularity of performance that Aoba largely rejects here has been replaced with an equally fundamental singularity of momentum.
This is a promising start, but it does little beyond establishing the album’s easy listening qualities. Much of its depth comes from intricacies within its arrangements; these are often much more layered and tonally busy than past efforts, opening new opportunities. Case in point, the instrumental "Ohayashi" places Aoba’s classical guitar stylings against ascending bells. These prelude the track and play in tandem with her after she makes her entrance. The two play off one another with increasing intensity, until Aoba bursts into semiquavers and speeds into the distance, allowing the rest of the arrangement settling into a groove as it lights her path. It's a standout, displaying an intriguing clash of timbres largely unprecedented within her discography; brief moments of violence did occasionally surface here and there, as on “Mars 2027“ and the rasgando punctuations of “Terifuriame”, but these were contained within Aoba’s all-important bubble of singularity. Removed from this, these tones pack a newfound sense of fission.
“Ohayashi” is a great snapshot of this album’s appeal: there’s a sense of motion here that feels entirely new and gently compelling. Interestingly, that track is one of only two where Aoba and Umebayashi split compositional duties; the rest of the album sees their tracks traded off against one another in ones or twos. If “Ohayashi” is a circumstantial whirlpool caught between two opposing forces, the pair’s back-and-forth is part of a much smoother current; their complement and convection sustains the album’s mobility and guides its pacing.
Of the two, Umebayashi’s pieces are perhaps the most immediately engaging. These are marked by their plucked or hammered ostinatos, using winding motifs that repeat and rearrange themselves within the arrangement with effortless elasticity. At their best, they pull off colourful accents and melodic flourishes in ways that Aoba herself would never reach for, as with “Pilgrimage”’s lilting chimes; at worst, their cynical progressions feel a little drab and overplayed, as on the bemusing single “Porcelain.” “Easter Lily”, “Dawn in the Adan” and “Chi no Kaze” see him anchoring his style in Aoba’s guitar to great effect, the latter’s low tempo in particular pairing well enough with her style to be mistaken as an outtake from, say, Utabiko
. A worthy collaborator, then.
On the other hand, Aoba’s tracks are less busy, often focused on minimal vocal pieces such as the time-stopping “Kiri Nakishima / 霧鳴島“, or plunging into full ambience on the gorgeous opener “Prelude.” She reprises her vintage style for the midway gem “Sagu Palm's Song”, but for the most part she uses the immediacy of Umebayashi’s arrangements for cover while retreating further than ever into the secretive territory she introduced on Mahoroboshiya
. However, the solemness of that album is largely absent here; Adan no Kaze
retains enough momentum to seem at least faintly outgoing even at its most hushed. Just as the sequencing places the meditation of Aoba’s pieces in active dialogue with the gentle kineticsm of Umebayashi’s, so too does it open up the privacy that hitherto defined her music to a wider space. This is critical to everything about the album, and it perhaps best accounts for its relation to the practical implications of a larger audience. That’s the takeaway, I suppose: this new configuration of Ichiko Aoba may be less immediately striking or self-contained than before, but it distinguishes itself in novel ways while making for one of the smoothest listens of her discography. This record holds up on its own terms, and it’s pretty enough to do well on anyone else’s.