Tatsuro Yamashita - Softly Music Album Reviews

Tatsuro Yamashita - Softly Music Album Reviews
At 69, the Japanese singer-songwriter and city-pop icon is still working in pursuit of the perfect pop song.

“There are only two ways for a person to live,” Tatsuro Yamashita recently told Brutus magazine. “You either constantly seek to evolve, or you resolve to hold fast to the same path. The worst is being wishy-washy and doing neither of those things.” Born in 1953, the Tokyo-based musician was always the best songwriter, arranger, and vocalist in all of city pop, but his love of music is boundless, his commitment to evolution wholehearted. He released one of the first city-pop singles, “DOWN TOWN,” with his band Sugar Babe in 1975; it’s essentially a loving riff on the Isley Brothers’ “If You Were There.” Since then, his decades-long solo career has highlighted an undying love for the Beach Boys and various strains of funk, soft rock, and soul. Despite having more than 60,000 records in his collection, Yamashita will comfortably admit that he “[doesn’t] have a lot of favorite sounds,” but he is a voracious listener. During the ’70s and ’80s he’d listen to R&B radio, buy 20-odd CDs, and then create 90-minute mixtapes; now he studies the Global Top 50 charts on streaming services. His new album Softly, his first in 11 years, is a testament to his uncompromising desire to push himself; Yamashita may be 69 years old, but he’s still striving for pop perfection.

He achieves it here because he’s really the same wide-eyed boy from 50 years ago. His love for choral groups and doo-wop was obvious on his 1972 debut Add Some Music to Your Day, released when he was still a teenager, and he opens Softly with a one-minute intro featuring little more than vocal harmonies. Titled “フェニックス” (“Phoenix”), it has Yamashita singing of holding back tears and moving into the future. He crystallizes such sentiments on the follow-up track, “Love’s on Fire,” becoming the mythological symbol of rebirth itself as he announces, “Yes, I’m on fire!” He’s obsessed with his lover, and he knows that their bond will keep him going. A synth-pop track with programmed drums, it’s a bit of a curveball compared to the more traditional instrumentation that has characterized his albums, but the switch-up is a sign of his creative restlessness.

Having likened himself to director Yasujiro Ozu, Yamashita is the sort of artist who largely works within stylistic boundaries. “うたのきしゃ” (“Uta no Kisha”), for example, is one of the most classically Yamashita songs on Softly. It’s built on a sturdy foundation of grooving bassline, uplifting vocal harmonies, and resplendent brass, but it’s all about his sparing use of other instruments: a vibraslap here, a train whistle there, an interlude with an unexpected synthesized beat. Towering above everything is his voice, slightly worn but with the same emotional power he’s always had to transform simple words into transcendent mantras. He concludes the song by repeatedly asking people to ride, sing, and dance to “the music train.” Much like on his 1978 single “Let’s Dance Baby,” he repeats the titular line over and over again with so much conviction that it becomes a magical, magnetic invitation.

Yamashita understands that his songs allow him to verbalize emotions he’d be uncomfortable expressing in real life. “You won’t see me actually saying anything you might hear in my songs,” he’s confessed. (In fact, he has admitted that he never romantically proposed to his wife, Mariya Takeuchi, of “Plastic Love” fame. “We both just kind of went, ‘Should we get married…?’”) This reservation is surprising, given how arresting his most loving songs are. On 1979’s “永遠のFull Moon” (“Eternal Full Moon”), there’s excitement brewing as he sings about basking in the moonlight with a lover, while the 1982 piano ballad “Your Eyes” could handily soundtrack the first dance at a wedding. Such tenderness appears on Softly as well, but “コンポジション” (“Composition”) is notably and refreshingly low-key. He sings about love as a song two people make together, and the only English line, “I wanna play for you,” is sung with such transparent vulnerability that it sells the whole premise; a less accomplished vocalist would render the conceit unbearably saccharine.

Yamashita’s voice, as everyone in his sphere knows, is peerless. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono, who played bass on Yamashita’s 1977 classic Spacy, considered him one of only three great singers in their scene. “I was really jealous of him, but also kind of fascinated,” he told Brutus. “I think of Yamashita-kun as being like a rakugo storyteller.” The comparison is apt: the traditional art of one-man, comic storytelling involves entertaining a crowd while seated and with minimal props—the smallest changes in pitch and tone become massively important in conveying different emotions and characters. Sometimes his voice is so overwhelmingly forceful that it floods you with pure feeling (1977’s “Love Space,” 1983’s “悲しみのJody (She Was Crying)”), but the subtler performances are equally immense. Every melodic phrase in “Lehua, My Love,” for instance, is an opportunity for Yamashita to inject drama—sustained notes and stressed syllables capture the serenity of the titular Hawaiian flower, but also the heartbreak and romance defining its accompanying mythology.

Whenever Yamashita writes a song, he wants it to be a “microcosm containing an infinite world.” He’s talked about his admiration for J.S. Bach’s “Partita for Violin No. 2 - Chaconne” and how much is conveyed by a single violin. He aims for the same grandiosity with his voice, especially when making a cappella tracks. “Shining From the Inside” is one of Softly’s odes to the lustrous beauty of close harmonies, and is sung entirely in English. Given how superior his pronunciation is to his contemporaries’, he was once asked how he learned the language, to which he responded, “I just listened to records and memorized stuff. I can sing it, but I can’t actually speak it.” Despite the linguistic disconnect, Yamashita recognizes the specific rhythms and moods inherent to English’s phonology and knows when to employ it over Japanese to heighten a song’s mood.

Yamashita is also an expert arranger. You can hear his attention to detail on “光と君へのレクイエム” (which Light in the Attic translates as “Light and Requiem for You”), whose propulsive drum beat is tempered by soft synth pulses. In the past, similar songs like 1991’s “アトムの子” (“Children of the Atom”) could be overstuffed, but Yamashita lets his voice quietly rise above the surface here, like rays of light peeking through blinds. “ミライのテーマ” (“Mirai’s Theme”) is also appropriately even-keeled, with the occasional glistening synth flourish ushering in a sense of new beginnings as he talks about the joy of a daughter’s birth.

Curiously, one of Yamashita’s lyrical tenets is to avoid writing about real people or being too specific. It’s partially a result of his antipathy for the Japanese folk boom of the 1970s, and specifically its lyrical content. “If you put too much meaning into the words, you run the risk of the sound losing its color,” he once explained. Even when he addresses the state of the world on “Oppression Blues (弾圧のブルース),” he does so without being didactic; as with his 1986 track “The War Song,” he simply mourns and allows space for sadness. This all aligns with his thoughts on his favorite film, Sadao Yamanaka's 1937 Humanity and Paper Balloons. He was blown away when he first watched it, as he’d mostly seen post-war films up to then and felt they were “preachy, pedantic, or about ‘enlightenment’ or something—full of excuses.” Yamanaka’s movie “looked at human beings with a high degree of clarity” and was “without pretension.” Yamashita’s songs are much the same: Everything is rendered in matter-of-fact terms, and his arranging and singing give his generalized language a prismatic quality, providing deeper insight into the scope of humanity in ways that labored-over text couldn’t.

Half a century into his career, Yamashita has multiple lifetimes worth of songs written, including those for legendary artists like Yumi Matsutoya and Eichii Ohtaki. “Culture, you know, it may have 100 or 200 different entrances, but there is only one exit,” he has said. He approaches the craft of pop music with utmost seriousness; recently, he even destroyed all his demos, ensuring that no one would release any of his half-baked ideas posthumously. It’s hard to complain, though, when he’s still releasing songs like “Cheer Up! The Summer,” suffused in the breezy atmospheres and unbridled joy of his best work. “We can fly away,” he sings, as string arrangements and vocal harmonies lift higher. It’s irresistible because it’s irresistible to Yamashita. Really, all his music is like this: a natural overflow of his boundless love for—and belief in—pop music.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Tatsuro Yamashita - Softly Music Album Reviews Tatsuro Yamashita - Softly Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on July 21, 2022 Rating: 5


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