Descriptions of Shugo Tokumaru mark his love of excess. He sticks his songs together with glue and toy instruments, he locks himself in his room for weeks so he can write in endless slews, and he arranges his songs with dozens of ideas and never makes a song that isn’t very much in the mix, recorded and arranged with all the bizarreness required of baroque pop’s truest maverick. Finally, and most deciding of all, he doesn’t speak our language, and so we let the flourishes speak for him. We learn of Tokumaru’s day through flutes and ukuleles, la la las and xylophones, until all the stories we hear about him are so possessive that when we listen to him it’s hard to separate the materialist composer from the songwriter. We forget he can write a song as exact and seriously-intended as “Tightrope”, even though we might welcome a 50-second jaunt like “Pah-paka” all the same.
Of course, it’s a hard thing taking Tokumaru sincerely, or rather with the right kind of sincerity. No-one’s taking away Tokumaru’s music as a joke, but its unbridled joy, and the way it is fashioned (from a dream-diary, with as many different aspects of each dream shared) is just as fantastical. Nobody comes into a Tokumaru record for particular insight, but then, nor should we come in just to hear the sound of a cheap recorder giving cadence to a freak-out. My experience with Tokumaru, instead, is in beholding a master pop connoisseur making an album that holds together at the seams.
This has been evident since the beginning, and particularly on his breakthrough records; Night Piece moved from dawn breaking on the sleepy “Such a Color” to “Paparazzi”, a track of frantic ukulele jams. Exit, probably his most detailed and drawn upon album, never once stopped moving. One simply has to trust Tokumaru to be in control of himself, and it’s hard not to be enthralled by that. He may have fared best as the connoisseur, and his albums are worn and lived in by the time they’re finished, but selection and demarcation are real skills, and the reason why we can behold his music without getting lost in translation.
In Focus? features both “Tightrope” and “Pah-paka”, two entirely different pieces, but isn’t a particularly balanced towards their styles, instead playing in favour of the latter – it’s a bolstered twee pop record, full of theatrics and heightening. Its resolution may as well be handclaps (“Poker” darts sensually towards this end). For all its mad congruence, though, In Focus? rolls on relentlessly. It’s by far Tokumaru’s longest record, and features more intersections and sidebars than ever. “Gamma”, separating two of his most distinct pop songs ever, is a danceable sound experiment, one that Shugo might make a centrepiece on a more succinct record like Night Piece. Even as a dissonant frame-setter, though, Tokumaru creates moments around which the record gains its jurisdiction: “Muybo” makes it clear I’d gladly hear anyone with his bent for pop music tune his guitar, because there’s always something moving in the background.
Among all this, though, it’s “Tightrope” that floors me most. For an album which emphasises arrangement, Tokumaru’s best work comes from this quiet understatement, as he uses little more than an acoustic guitar and little keyboard notes flittering on and off in the background. Here, he is emoting in rare fashion, using his flourishes not to dissent from the song, nor to abstract it in joyful resilience, but instead let them speak the pain. Here, Tokumaru isn’t dissimilar to others who have tried to bring us everything and then turned to nothing. Sufjan whispered “Casimilar Pulaski Day”, a heart-wrenching true story among the loud historical upheaval of Illinois. But for In Focus?, “Tightrope” is a moment marked by its intentions, suddenly dropping the act around it as if it were a done service. It comes through at just the right moment, and once it’s done, it lets the brazen, mad album about it continue down the rabbit hole. In Focus? isn’t a new celebration, but rather a reinforcement with one, tactile moment reminding us why the pop connoisseur is to be trusted: because he’ll always have something to draw on.
// Notes from the Road
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