Cornelius seems like an unaffectedly magnetic performer—charming and adorable without being fey or foppish, radiating rock-god confidence without being arrogant. I get the sense that the man is his music, that what he does comes completely naturally to him, that there isn’t even one doubt in Keigo Oyamad’s mind that “Cornelius” is who he should be. He made this clear enough during his recent concert at New York’s Bowery Ballroom; the audience was so taken with him that by the end of the show, I couldn’t find a single person who wasn’t smiling or delightedly cooing.
Some geniuses are lifelong sufferers. They carry the burden of the world on their rarefied shoulders, and they’re never satisfied with themselves or anyone else. Some geniuses are savants. Cornelius is the best kind of genius—he’s aware of how talented he is, and he’s obviously no slouch as a craftsman/entertainer, but he’s finally surpassed the point of insecurity and defensive perfectionism and gotten good enough that he can relax, make beautiful, harmonically complex pop that’s also silly and frolicsome. He’s in his element.
I could see this as he brought a scrawny, nervous teenage boy (a ringer for The Royal Tenenbaums’ Dudley character) up on stage and guided his hand over a theremin to the tune of “Love Me Tender”, while an instrumental of the same song played at full volume in an Elvis movie projected behind them. And I could see it in a short black-and-white film backing one of Cornelius’ own instrumental songs—a close-up of a pair of walking fingers striding to the beat, making their way past mundane household obstacles.
It was evident in the way he could (without the costumes!) emulate the cool/hot guitar-star showmanship of a chicken-struttin’, decked-out-in-lace-scarves, godfather-of-whutevuh Sign of the Times-era Prince, and then turn in a cover of “Brazil” that married a gentle acoustic samba groove with a vocal that unironically dared to whisk me from the audience and carry me off into a romantic Purple Rose of Cairo-style golden-age celluloid daydream. Hopefully this is not the pot smoke talking, but I swear there was a glow coming from that stage, one that sophisticated lighting rigs can’t provide - it’s the glow that tends to follow the world’s most interesting, compelling, talented characters around like a needy puppy constantly biting or swiping at its master’s pant leg.
It’s hard to describe the Cornelius sound without describing the personality—anyway, his musical repertoire is so vast that once you’ve found a hole for the pigeon, it flies out of your hands and homes in on another hole. You can’t just use “psychedelia” or “Brian Wilson” or “Todd Rundgren” or “The Purple One” or “Stereolab” or “Beck” or “Jon Spencer” as reference points (although, in fact, his 2002 album Point may, concept-wise and title-wise, be a nod to the infamous Harry Nilsson-penned cartoon musical The Point). His love of music goes deeper than any name I’ve just dropped—for example, there’s nothing explicitly new wave or British-mod about Cornelius, but at the Bowery show, he and his band were outfitted in skinny ties and dopey Paul Weller haircuts.
Unlike many musicians, Cornelius’ influences are not a life preserver for an artist stranded in an oceanic ditch of creative blockage; rather they’re like accessories, enhancements, something sprinkled on to the finished product to give it that extra little bit of flair.
You might wanna say, “Well, it’s not enough like Nilsson/Wilson,” because you can’t read that kind of comparison and not be disappointed that the music doesn’t offer a pristine facsimile of your heroes. He’s not the craftiest lyricist or melodicist, and in spite of that he’s still a hell of an arranger, a player, a jokester, a sound-plunderer (yes, including the inevitable Planet of the Apes samples that show up on the Fantasma LP and in his concerts), a tinkerer, and a whim-follower. By holding him up to the standards of others, you’d be neglecting the originality that Cornelius does offer, the warmth and sweetness of his sounds, and the sublime and breezy modernity of them.
The music is effervescent. I hate that word because it reminds me of 7-Up, but maybe that’s appropriate; don’t think of it as the tiny beestings of the bubbles as they explode on your tongue, think of it as holding your face over a freshly poured glass with ice, and the mist sprays your cheeks. It excites you, it relaxes you, it makes you feel gooooooood. I wasn’t prepared to feel so good; I knew I’d like the show on some level, but I would have just as soon written the day off and hightailed it to an early sleep. My aches, pains, and grievances dissipated the second the roadie stopped pushing me out of the way to grab equipment, and within a few minutes, that old summer depression had wandered over to Houston Street for a hot dog. Later, dude.