Review Summary: Will the real Seiko Oomori please stand up?
It’s another busy year for Seiko Oomori. Not content with touring her 2020 tour-de-force Kintsugi
and overseeing her idol group ZOC’s major label signing and subsequent debut album, she’s made time to record and arrange an hour-long album of self-covers. Self-covers? Of what? Well, it’s common for J-pop’s most prolific songwriters to run a side gig writing for other groups, and there’s a precedent for these artists to compile rearranged and rerecorded versions of these tracks on dedicated ‘self-cover’ releases under their own name. PERSONA #1
’s tracklist is drawn from material Oomori contributed to idol soloists such as Sayumi Michishige and alt-idol groups such as You’ll Melt More!, putting her own personal spin on these songs and seeing them off for the first time in her voice.
For the most part, it’s a fun ride. True to its idol roots, PERSONA #1
caters to the most sugary facets of Oomori’s sound like never before. It’s not all kitsch and candyfloss, but her trademark harrowing earnestness finds itself pared back in favour of a bubblier approach that may well open new doors for domestic audience in particular. All this comes by way of a pentatonic screamalong with returning collaborator Noko, of Shinsei Kamattechan fame (“Shuukan Saidai Me”), an uncharacteristically mellow trap odyssey (“KILAi STAR LIGHT”), a snotty power ballad straight out of the late ‘90s (“LADY BABY BLUE”), and a lot
of hypergenki bangers (“GIRL ZONE”, “Eiga wo Mite yo”, “Unmei”, that one with the kaomojis, etc.). The latter camp can be overwhelming at points, but the You’ll Melt More! original “Unmei” lands at the top of the pack with its balance of rainbows and glitter with moments of restraint, rounded off by Oomori’s pining vocal lines, a delivery style that suits her somewhat better than the cutesy fare elsewhere.
For my money, the catchiest cut here is the mid-tempo eye-widener “WHO IS BABY”, which ironically boasts the most infectious chorus progression of the lot despite relying the least on energy or intensity. It’s a surprise to hear an artist as frequently strained as Seiko Oomori do so well on a straight pop number, though this ultimately speaks to the strength of its writing. The opposite is true for the biggest surprise of all. Ever since an earlier version appeared on Oomori’s 2017 hodgepodge kitixxxgaia
, “Mugen Climax” has been far and away my least favourite song of her entire canon. It’s a mix of disjointed piano sequences and glorified stage whispering, rooting itself in the flashiest movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata without coming anywhere close to transcending the original; a winceable translation of a ballsy idea into a bad cabaret piece. Until now. The PERSONA #1
revision of “Mugen Climax” is potentially the single most tasteless piece of music I’ve heard all year, trading unrealized moments of suspense for a maelstrom of beats, bass and synth pulses in an iconoclastic warp of styles that would make for consternation in any conservatoire. MIKEY (of Tokyo Gegegay)’s rap feature is gratuitous icing on a cake that is literally all icing, all of J-pop’s most insufferable parts condensed into an absolute treat of a rule bender. It still doesn’t really work as a ‘song’, like, at all
, but this version is at least entertaining enough to write off all considerations of songwriting or good taste with its whir of melodramatic neoclassical thunderbeats and shrillness.
On top of that craziness, there’s also a handful of original tracks here: the surprisingly heavy electro-pop opener “PERSONA” packs in its share of good hooks, though its stabbing synth pads and stir-crazy beats are too exuberant to offer Seiko’s vocal ecstasy a proper complement. The song’s main value is lyrical, unpacking themes of self-fashioning and performance that have underpinned her past writing; the way she frames her construction of one release out of mixed authorship aligns nicely with the more personal identity pieces she set forth on Kintsugi
with the likes of “Yuugata Mirage” and “Singer Songwriter”. “PERSONA” is the closest thing to a stylistic departure of these new tracks; the closing duo of “stolen worlD” and “Rude” feel like follow-ons from Kintsugi
’s bittersweet triumph. “Rude” in particular exemplifies her strengths in this style, and the pair back to back do a respectable job of folding this occasionally scatty compilation back into her body of work.
All this is nice and quaint and cogent, one of many reasons why PERSONA #1
works as a convenient assembly of what will will likely be these songs’ final form, but it there are two critical reasons why it can’t compete with Oomori’s fully original full-lengths. First is a straightforward lack of emotionally charged knockouts; of the cuts that scale back the thrills and reach for something weightier, only “Rude” has the grit and magnitude to hold its own against past standards. This release might dish out record levels of pop gratification, but Oomori’s core appeal lies in something bitter and bracing that runs a little thin here.
The album’s other inhibiting factor is its overreliance on idol-esque electronic ‘backing tracks’, courtesy of returning collaborator Kaoru Okubo. It largely abandons the acoustic or full band arrangements that usually anchor Seiko Oomori albums, opting for a thoroughly synthetic range of keyboard, string, bass and percussion stylings that are at once too dynamic and smooth to the point of weightlessness. The problem here is that most actual idol projects counterbalance the artificiality of these shiny digitalisations with hyperactive group chemistry, taking the music’s plastic approximations of lightspeed in their stride and adding an unmistakably human touch. Seiko Oomori has a polarisingly personable vocal style, but this alone is not enough to camouflage the uncanny valley effect of her singing unaccompanied over one distinctly digital fizzler after another; the album’s two features feel increasingly refreshing across repeat listens in a way that only goes to emphasise this. Oomori’s ridden similar arrangements with great success before, most famously on 2014’s “Imitation Girl”, but these were always departures from the main palette in question. Even Kintsugi
, arguably her most consistent work, struggled to handle two songs in this vein back-to-back, and PERSONA #1
’s quotient is well above the halfway mark.
The result is generally convincing but rarely impressive and a little exhausting. It scores all the hits it needs as far as Oomori’s versatility as a writer goes, but she had little to prove in this regard and it’s far from her strongest realization as a whole work. Take it or leave it as such; it still sets a steep standard as far as non-essential releases go.