“I’ve always tried to resist homogeneity and cohesiveness, as a matter of artistic survival,” French producer Joakim writes in a press release for his latest album, Samurai. That much quickly becomes apparent upon listening to the record, which veers unpredictably between genres and fashions a unique synthesis of instruments, sounds, and textures even within individual tracks. Joakim identifies labels as a source of stagnation, and even without reading his statement it is clear that he consciously avoids producing anything that might attract easy categorization. This approach ensures that his work is never dull, but as with any heterogeneous album, it can also present a problem of meaning and interpretation. To listen to Samurai is to be regularly rebuffed in your efforts to firmly grasp something beyond its shifting surface, some core of character or perspective beneath Joakim’s eclectic sound.
Not that the album is entirely without continuity. The most consistent sonic element of Samurai is, strangely, a smooth saxophone weaving throughout its songs. The instrument appears toward the end of the title track and recurs like a spirit guide throughout “Late Night New City”, “Exile”, and “Not Because You’re Sad”. This helps lend a jazzy, intimate strand to the album’s larger palette, like clips from an adult contemporary or easy listening record displaced in a far less comfortable or familiar setting.
Joakim is not squeamish about deploying cheesier genres in service of his mission. “Green Echo Mecha” has a new age vibe to it, though positioned next to the addled electronica of “Cannibale Pastorale”, it’s hard to say where this is all supposed to be going. Joakim’s fascination with inverting genres does not always translate to compelling or memorable songs, and at times it feels like his choices are arbitrary. Why easy listening and new age music and not, say, flamenco? That these wildly disparate elements could have been swapped for one another without seriously altering the overall product bodes poorly for an album seeking some kind of legibility.
Samurai is often at its best during its most straightforward moments. The title track is one of the strongest offerings, a warm, spritely synthpop tune that sets the tone for the album’s themes of severance and exile. “Samurai” has the added gift of bearing Joakim’s deep, breathy vocals, which on their own amount to little more than a mumble but add a necessary humanity to the track as a whole. This is true also for “Exile”, another synthy number whose danceability and melodic directness provide some much-needed structure. Lead single “Numb” is a nightmarish electro-funk piece like a warped, distorted Prince song. While the only specimen of its kind on the album, the track manages to combine genres and sounds in a way that sounds considered and meaningful.
Missing from much of the album is a perceptible emotional content, though several slower, sadder numbers creep in for Samurai‘s second half. The pensive, keyboard-driven “Time Is Wrong” is one of the record’s strongest and most compellingly strange moments. Joakim’s voice is digitally processed into a series of vibrating robotic parts, cohering into a semblance of a human voice in the same way that the pictures of a flipbook assemble into a story. “I’ll be there for you / Will you be there for me / When the time is wrong?” he moans through the digitized fog, beseeching loyal companionship and an antidote to his crushing loneliness. The final two tracks on the album, “Not Because You’re Sad” and the stunning piano piece “Hope_Patience”, follow suit as similarly emotive numbers. These are the moments where the core of Samurai is alluded to, at last, rewarding the listener with their simplicity, vulnerability, and an unfussy lack of pretense.
Samurai is an often frustrating listen, but at a minimum, it is always interesting. How you react to it will be a matter of personal taste; while not everyone will be able to stomach Joakim’s inscrutable whims, those who share his interests and predilections will likely be intrigued. In the worst light, one could argue that the album is unknowable or even a little hollow, whereas a more charitable interpretation might suggest that Samurai is simply an aloof enigma that keeps its secrets close. Regardless, it is clear that Joakim has at the very least eluded his nemesis of artistic categorization.
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