Review Summary: Gorgeous ambient embrace from a long-missed luminary
Tujiko Noriko's 2000s output is one of art pop’s great cult treasures, remembered by few but for good reason. Her clash of soothing melodies with skittering glitch, her languid vocals, her deadpan humour, and her delightfully lackadaisical attitude to song structure are all instantly recognisable for the traits of their time, yet are too idiosyncratic to be aped. They’ve aged well as such: to this day, name recognition of such works as Hard ni Sasete
(2002), From Tokyo to Naiagara
(2003) or her collaboration with Aoki Takamasa 28
(2005) is practically a shibboleth for anyone who knows the first thing about art/glitch/ambient pop in a wider sense: explore beyond the likes of Bjork and the Postal Service, and these are viable central texts. Peer closer, and there's an oddball quality to Tujiko's background as a Japanese emigrant in Paris forging a music career from self-confessed childlike originality and zero formal musical education; the ramshackle charm of her early work bears the sense of her making up a new lexis and grammar of songwriting as she went along, inevitable rough edges galore. This never materialised as (nor particularly demanded) full fluency - Tujiko put her solo output on hold and spent the 2010s focusing on cinema, both as director and composer. She released the occasional soundtrack, but since her last full-length My Ghost Comes Back
(2014), considerations of how 'maturity' or further refinement might have fed into her vintage style remain unanswered. This is for the best, I think: most idioms are better left unparsed.
It’s therefore a relief that Tujiko Noriko's first album proper in almost a decade declines to reboot her familiar sound, rather fastforwarding to some of its most abstract possibilities. Crépuscule I & II
conserves everything delicate and inquisitive about Tujiko's style and spreads it over a hundred minutes of the most refined textural interplay and subtle dynamics we've heard from her yet. Where she once emphasised fission and disparity as a kinetic bedrock for more blissful overtones, she now refashions both the distorted and the sublime as complementary layers of ambience: shimmerings of glitch, mic static, digital feedback and field recordings fade in and out of the periphery like a pulse-check against a spartan backdrop of drones and sustained piano chords. This electroacoustic scope/scope takes a deceptively creative range of forms, seldom deployed in the same manner between pieces: for instance, "Opening Night"'s interference starts out as digital, but by the end of the track the focus has shifted to serene synthesisers providing a backdrop for more brittle acoustic tones. The converse goes for "Flutter", which has more in common with Tujiko’s older material in its foregrounding of elements of glitch as the primary foil to her performance.
This subtle aesthetic variety is certainly one part of how Crépuscule I & II
cheats the bloat-rotting curse of the double album, but if there’s just one overriding compliment to be levelled here, it’s that its great runtime is handled so sparsely, so delicately, so gorgeously personally organically
that it all but secedes from the passage of time in the same fashion as two lovers on the threshold of sleep, their breath and being both separated by a hair from perfect unity. The depth of this record’s intimacy does not bear overstating, tempered as it is with a great maturity that largely eschews the sexual yet somehow evokes such a magical sense of the tactile. It’s no great leap to imagine the timing of these reverberating chords as MIDI-triggered by the rising and falling of a sleeping chest, or the auxiliary layers that brighten so many of these pieces at the critical moment as analogous to some benevolent embrace. This extends to Tujiko’s vocals, which are so haptically charged and self-expositional to an almost discomforting extent: her stylings on "The Promenade Vanishes" and "Cosmic Ray", for instance, are accompanied by such close mic placement that the sound of the spit around her tongue and its contact with the top of her mouth is an inseparable component of her phrasing, while her reverberated whisperings on "Golden Dusk" and "Fossil Words" bears such resonance that I can practically feel the flow of her breath condensing through my speaker.
Quick associations can easily be drawn with ASMR, but this is foremost a highly personal performance receiving a hyperfocused spotlight in the midst of an abstracted soundscape - the results are arresting and at times disorienting, but more often than not they serve as a device to draw the listener in (and it is always a singular listener
with a singular set of sensitivities, to my mind; I struggle to imagine anything like a generalised audience reaction
here). As stated, this is never titillating and frequently rejects pop immediacy in favour of the disarming immanence
of sensory maximalism. This stems from her inflections, but also from the fragility of her melodies: "Bronze Shore", for instance, takes a lullaby approach and sees her reaching for high notes with precarious strain. It’s telling that the clamorous instrumental that emerges in the song’s second half actually suggests less violence than her earlier vocal delicacies and the hints of apprehension that something might somehow shatter therein. Conversely, the instrumental "A Meeting At The Space Station" offers arguably the most 'organic' cut on the album, showcasing Tujiko's flair for minimalistic nuance, keenly honed on her film compositions, over twelve minutes of absolutely exquisite ambience. This track’s beauty is self-explanatory, but it also offers distance and perspective on its sung counterparts: though the vocals’ humanising qualities play an integral role, their extreme intimacy carries with it an awkwardness, an estranging device that adds a certain inner tension and proves key to anchoring an experience otherwise at the mercy of intangible currents of bliss.
So it is that Tujiko Noriko’s recurrent hints of personality afford her a defter purchase than ever on the abstract, a domain now separated from the oblique by a clearer horizon line than I had ever expected to see in her work. She finds a way after way to test, subvert and covertly affirm the shape of her compositions with a delightfully imaginative range of inflections, accentuations, textural alterations and other such small touches; they are at once structurally malleable yet fully formed in their character. Their cumulative expanse makes for one of the most unpunishingly generous experiences of its kind; to draw on one final example, the gargantuan late epic "Roaming Over Land, Sea and Air" meanders through well over twenty minutes of the album’s murkiest fare before closing with a surprise crescendo, a rapturous clanging of ethereal sounds that makes for perhaps its most straightforward offer of gratification, holding the listener by the hand when they have all but abandoned the necessity of such a thing. It’s a lovely snapshot of one of Crépuscule I & II
’s core qualities: it demands one to navigate the wilderness, but it guides their progress with a touch that can only be called loving.