Review Summary: A monument to lost nostalgia and idyllic daydreams
How can we be nostalgic for things we’ve never experienced? How can a song make us nostalgic if we never heard it growing up? These questions have been looming over pop culture for the last decade or so, and I can’t say I’ve been immune myself. After all, one listen to Ariana Grande’s 2018 tune “Successful” immediately made me think of the Spyro franchise; was Grande actually inspired by those games, or was it all a coincidence? Probably the latter, but the point is that the song still triggered old memories – or, more importantly, idyllic
memories. After all, our nostalgia usually paints such times with rose-colored glasses, even if they were also plagued by hardships.
But let’s zoom in on that first
question that I posed, as it presents a much more curious case. As the vaporwave, future funk, and modern city pop trends from the 2010s onward have proven, there seems to be a longing to experience an idyllic version of some foregone age. Or… well, more specifically, the 80s in this case. The term that was eventually slapped onto this phenomenon is “anemoia”, and it goes some way into explaining why people are obsessing over old Japanese pop tunes that capitalized on Walkmans and cars with built-in FM stereos. But if you’ve been following this trend for long enough, I think you’ll agree that the unofficial figurehead of the entire city pop resurgence is singer-songwriter Mariya Takeuchi. Her song “Plastic Love”, which was only a minor hit back in the mid-80s, experienced a massive revival in 2017 because of an eight-minute fan remix and ushered in an entire new wave of false nostalgia.
And yet, when I first spun “Plastic Love”, I understood the fuss. The twinkling pianos, the snappy percussion, the string swells, the jazzy chords… it all triggers something deeply sentimental in a listener, whether young or old. It helps that Takeuchi has a delicate, almost Karen Carpenter-esque vocal inflection that exudes an aura of comfort and affection. But, to my pleasant surprise, the rest of the parent album Variety
largely continues in the same vein. In fact, to further spur the Carpenters comparison, much of Takeuchi’s work is created as a writer/arranger duo; Takeuchi being the former, and her husband Tatsuro Yamashita serving as the latter. They’re really an excellent duo, especially in regards to the album’s ballads; “Broken Heart” wouldn’t be the same if Takeuchi’s devastating lyrics of longing and regret (sung in very fluent English, I should add) weren’t accompanied by melancholic sax wails or soulful keyboard flourishes. Likewise, “Todokanu Omoi” benefits from complimenting Takeuchi’s calming voice with a hypnotic, dreamlike acoustic guitar/horn pairing.
Really, adjectives like “calming” or “comforting” help to explain why Takeuchi’s music creates such a nostalgic feeling in listeners. Aside from all the stuff that naturally makes her work appealing – her vocal talent, heartfelt lyrics, songwriting ability – she and Yamashita are able to craft lush, ornate musical worlds within the restraints of a three or four-minute pop song. The tracklist is largely dominated by (power)ballads, and while you might imagine the format becoming a bit repetitive after a while, the duo are surprisingly adept at experimenting with different textures and styles each time around. “Mizu to Anata to Taiyō to”, for instance, plays around with subtle Latin touches in the percussion and piano work, even adding a flute into the mix to give the song more of a relaxed lounge feel; on the other side of the spectrum, we’ve got the heavily orchestrated closer “Shetland ni Hoho wo Uzumete” to bring the record to a somber finish. All throughout Variety
, Takeuchi sings about universal themes of love, loss, and regret, and yet it’s her smooth, controlled delivery that elevates each lyrical passage; the way she combines a sense of conviction with such solace and serenity is truly inspiring.
Of course, as we know now, she really did
inspire many people; “Plastic Love” alone has inspired a slew of remixes and reimaginings, several of which are extremely popular in their own right. But that doesn’t mean that we should discard the rest of Variety
, as the album largely measures up to its now-iconic third single; the record rides the fine line between “timeless” and “of-its-time”, and is all the better for it. Jazzy, soulful 80s pop with lush arrangements and immaculate production? Count me in. If Mariya Takeuchi really is the new queen of nostalgia and anemoia, I can certainly think of many artists who are less worthy of claiming that title.