Review Summary: Starstruck pop whimsy at its most wholesome
I’ve never been able to pin down whether Kayoko Yoshizawa makes children’s music for adults or adult music for children. There’s something eclectic and enchanting to her craftful acts of pop whimsy, positing both verdicts at once before embracing both. At its best, her music is wryly kitsch in a way that invites playful scrutiny, focused and creative enough to withstand this and so gloriously sentimental that more meaningful levels of admiration are comfortably warranted.
Testament to all this, I remember watching one of her live recordings, marketed as a children’s concert; the first crowd shots threw me, hardly a child in sight but doey-eyed middle-aged couples all over the shop, an audience very much at odds with the finger puppetry and pantomime aesthetic of her performance. It was a momentary immersion breaker, but the moment the camera turned back to the stage I realised how easy it was to identify with the Kayoko Yoshizawa Children’s Hour crowd - or rather, how much the sheer wholesomeness of her style erased the jaded dispositions and delineations of maturity you would expect for this context, panning out as something universally appealing and altogether refreshing. She’s an all-age artist in the same way that, say, chocolate cake is an all-age food, and her setlist was bloody magical.
That said, I’m not convinced that Yoshizawa has yet been able to articulate this appeal end-to-end across a solid record. Her 2017 art pop opus Yaneura Juu
came very close, but it was still hampered by its share of downtime, while the following year’s Joyuu Shimai
was as gentle a reminder as any that her levels of inspiration have never come off evenly from song to song. That record was her fourth in four years - an intense level of output by anyone’s standards, but time since has been almost as long. For all Yoshizawa has been sharpening her pen and reinforcing her brand in the meantime, I was suspicious to treat this span as a guarantee of whatever masterpiece has been just out of her grasp so far. Open expectations and an unpresuming attitude are always the best way with her.
To this end, album #5 Akahoshi Aoboshi
a masterpiece or a gamechanger for Yoshizawa’s quality standards, but it does stand as a welcome return and her most polished release to date. It wastes no time in dishing out a swathe of familiar delights and a handful of new ones: Yoshizawa’s affinity for strong hooks sounds reinvigorated, stronger across the board than ever before, and it’s backed by a swathe of lush tones courtesy of the finest production on any of her output. In short order, we’re treated to breathtaking choruses (“Lucifer”), cutesy feints at upbeat territory (“Gumi”) and exuberant theatrics (“Oni”). Second track “Service Area” draws all of these elements together for a treat of a lead single, with a creative range of accompaniment and a strong intrigue in both its tune and lyrics. Yoshizawa has a rare talent for crafting love songs that fare equally well on the coo-y and kooky ends of the spectrum, and “Service Area” is a knockout for the latter, backed by one of her strongest choruses to date.
As usual, there’s also a showstopper - in this case an excellent one! “New Hong Kong” blends the twinkly dressing of contemporary pop with borderline chiptune retro-synth stylings, panning out like the Pokémon Center theme reborn as an upbeat pop theme for warm armchairs the world over. Similarly to “Service Area”, it shows off Yoshizawa’s knack for implementing novelty and ‘quirk’ as complementary forces to her underlying strength as a songwriter. It’s also an apt reflection of the album’s palette; the vintage sensibilities, chamber arrangements and jazz-pop of her previous two records have been swapped for a pastiche of ‘90s alternative sounds, seen off with a decisively modern makeover. Yoshizawa has pulled enough wardrobe changes at this point to suit practically any look she reaches for, and Akahoshi Aoboshi
’s comparatively forward-facing style is no exception.
Much as Yoshizawa’s strengths are well represented here, there are a few returning pitfalls. As with her past output, she fares less well when she leans too far into whimsy across consecutive tracks. The album’s second half suffers here; the lethargic ballad “Jelly no Koibito” in conjunction with the ultra-twee “Redial” derail the album’s hitherto impeccable momentum, the former’s hooks insufficient to balance its pacing and the latter’s showtune rudiments a little too (uh) phoned-in for comfort. This casts a shadow of sorts across the rest of the album: “Ryuusei” and “Ribbon” lack the immediacy or dynamism to snap the album back into shape, landing as respectable deep cuts for those inclined towards repeat perusals but a little short of the gratification standard set early on. Things pick up for the melancholy closer “Shishuu”, courtesy of the album’s most beautiful arrangement, but it’s hard to shake an overall impression of top-heaviness at this point.
An imbalanced tracklist is a small price to pay for such a strong opening salvo, however. I was previously convinced that the ideal Kayoko Yoshizawa experience was to be found in self-curated playlists of highlight tracks, but Akahoshi Aoboshi
’s opening run presents a formidable challenge to this notion and sees her set herself a new standard for continuity. If the backend is business as usual with a smattering of extra polish, then no harm done - Yoshizawa has a respectable discography at this point, and Akahoshi
surely sits near the top of it. It’s perhaps a little too devoted to cosy love songs for its own good, and it doesn’t quite
match up to the expansive fantasy of Yaneura Juu
as such, but it might just be her most refined record to date. Whether or not that counts as her outdoing herself is beside the point; Kayoko Yoshizawa is back with her mojo and creative impetus eminently intact, and if she’s not the most consistent songwriter working today, she at least has a strong claim as the most charming.