View Point #1: “Deep Inside the Ear / Resonance Inside the Heart”
Cornelius has made, with Point, a perfect album. For me.
I have no idea if this will be a perfect album for you, because I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you value in music. That’s why they invented labels and buzzwords. So, since you’re not me, let me just throw some of those labels and buzzwords out there and see if they stick with you.
Shibuya-kei. This is the alleged “style” that Cornelius, and other Japanese pop/antipop artists work in, if they’re fashionable and cool. Is it useful as a labeling device? No, because all it really means is “Shibuya-style”, which means hip and cool and trendy just like the Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo. Other shibuya-kei artists: defunct dance-pop heroes Pizzicato Five, fake J-popster Kahimi Karie, and Scots oddball Momus. So this one won’t work.
The Japanese Beck. This one is used (or “used”, in “quotation marks”, to “indicate” that the “writer” is being “slightly” “ironic”) in just about every single article sent to me in the 70-page promo packet that came with this CD from Matador. All these articles are the same, too—they all tell me Cornelius’ real name (Keigo Oyamada), they all make lame Planet of the Apes references, and they all talk about how Cornelius and Beck are basically identical musical souls who happen to have been born in different countries. But this comparison is pretty much inaccurate. Sure, both Mr. Hansen and Mr. Oyamada are obsessed with lots of different music, with the intersection of Art and Dance, and with collage structures in their songs; but hell, so was Charles Mingus, and ain’t no one callin’ Cornelius “the Japanese Mingus”. Might be a lot closer, perhaps, though—Beck tailors each new release to a different listener group, whereas Cornelius (like Mingus, and Joni Mitchell, and early Prince before him) follows his own weird path wherever it takes him.
Post- anything. Should just go without saying.
So since none of these tags really mean very much, I will explain to you exactly why Point is a perfect album, at least for me. Quite simply, it manages to hit every single thing on my checklist: power, grace, vision, good taste, bravery, interesting lyrics, heart, and flow. The big eight, and he rocks ‘em all.
Cornelius has a deep and abiding love and respect for music, and uses just about all of those forms in the course of this 45-minute 29-second album. The first song, “Point of View Point”, manages to kick Stereolab’s ass cold at the Avant-Garde Bacharach game, and does so by using exactly 10 words. This flows directly into the funky “Smoke”, with its drumbeat stolen from David Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel and its whispery intertwining vocal lines (thank god for lyric booklet translations): “Look at the eyes / Look at night / Look at the eyes / Deep into the eyes / Look carefully inside.” It’s like haiku; saying more with less is always good. This then moves gently into the water sounds and acoustic syncopation of “Drop” and thence to the booty-shakin’ robotstuff of “Another View Point” and then . . . and then. . . .
Well, I’m rambling, rather. But we like artists with big ears who make records that thumb their noses at the idea of “genre”—and Point could use that as a mission statement. “I Hate Hate” has Cornelius doing a metal pastiche/collage for a minute before someone starts going “Ssssh!” and a dog starts howling, and we slide straight into a version of the old chestnut “Brazil” (the song the Terry Gilliam movie got its title from), except now furnished with blipbleep sounds and a blues-guitar loop and a software voice program singing the lyrics. Clearly, the man lives in the world of sound—he wrote and produced and performed the whole damned thing himself, but for a couple strings, so all this genius is his.
I also love the way his words—just about all sung in Japanese—have some kind of depth that seems like it comes from depth within the man himself. I mean, maybe he’s a big jerkwad, but no one who sings “Sympathized sound / Elastic / Deep inside the ear / Resonance inside the heart / The image floats” could be a bad person. Nor should he be compared with Beck, either—Cornelius is trying to tell us something without saying it right out, something Beck hasn’t done since Mutations, which didn’t make him any money the way his crowd-pleasing Midnite Vultures, with its references to screaming lesbians and three-ways with white-trash girls, did.
Point is the best-sequenced and smoothest album I’ve heard this year, too. It is very clearly set up to be an album as opposed to a collection of singles, even from the text on the cover: “Point / by Cornelius / from Nakamegura / to Everywhere / 45’29”.” Nakemegura is the suburb where Cornelius now lives with his wife and daughter—it’s not quite as “cool” as Shibuya—and it really sounds like he’s trying to point from there to Everywhere in the world. The water sounds from “Drop” turn into bird sounds on the amazing samba “Bird Watching at Inner Forest” and then ocean sounds on “Nowhere”, tying everything together. The word “point” pops up in the middle of songs, when you least expect it. Even the tone-crazy chaos that starts the disc is reflected at the end, when “Nowhere” and its faux-trombone chill-out gets its cue: “Point! Stop the music” and turns into a long-ass piano chord that fades into white noise. Spot-on and spectacular.
So yeah. This is a perfect record, for me.
View Point #2: “Dissenting Opinion”
Who needs perfect? They say that Persian rugmakers used to intentionally leave one flaw in their beautiful creations: a missed stitch, a wrong color, something wrong. They did this so as not to compete with Allah, because only Allah is perfect. Or something like that.
All my favorite records have something wrong with them. I don’t think that any of these “mistakes” are on purpose, but rather the product of trying to reach too far, communicate too much, go beyond the bounds of what can be done comfortably. On Parliament’s Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, it’s probably “Wizard of Finance”, which I love dearly even though it’s incredibly cheesy and goes on too long. Caetano Veloso’s Livro contains a six-minute ode to Alexander the Great that won’t win any awards for beauty or grace, but it wins for ballsy ambition points, and a rock-solid groove. I’d go on, but you understand what I’m getting at.
Point might actually be a perfect album, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to end up loving it. Nothing sticks out; nothing disturbs the ear or the mind or the heart; nothing is objectionable. The flow might actually be TOO impressive, and the circular structure admits of no human fallibility. I don’t learn anything from Point the way I learned perseverance from Mama’s Gun or pain and humor from Zen Arcade or the anger-can-be-power double shot of London Calling and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Cornelius spent 11 months making this album, and forgot to screw it up. How are we supposed to relate to that?
I don’t know—maybe I’ll end up falling hard for this one. But right now, I’m pretty sure that the most perfect album in the entire world might not even make my year-end top 10. It’s a paradox I’m willing to live with.