[19 July 2009]
If I was 16 again, and trying to put the moves on a black-eye-mascara-blotched, Twilight-consuming graveyard girl, I’d definitely put a song from Susumu Yokota’s Mother on the mix tape I’d make for her, which may seem odd to say regarding an artist whose music is usually so ebullient and sweet. Yokota’s best work, or at least what seems like his best work (the man has put out something like a million albums) operates from an itinerary of clemency and childlike wonder. Even his most somber ambiences are rarely devastating. Rather, Yokota is more reflective or passive. It’s shy kid music, fantastically so.
On Mother, he has graduated from juvenilia to the turbulence of adolescent and teenage angst, specifically a life turmoil spent drifting off into swarming shadows soundtracked by 4AD Records, and cluttered by scribbled poetry, Wiccan spell books, and a haze of opium. By rough estimation, Yokota was likely on the edge of teendom when this kind of music first came around. So, it’s unsurprising that he’d wish to make an album that lingers about chronologically somewhere between This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End in Tears and Slowdive’s Just for a Day. It’s just slightly surprising that his personality doesn’t rub off that hard on these entries, as it does throughout the rest of his exhaustive release schedule. Perhaps it’s because Mother seems like a producer’s album, Yokota’s entries merely being backdrop to a host of bright young guest stars.
But Yokota denizens looking for an excuse to dye their fingernails black that extends beyond the pukey schmaltz of a certain aforementioned multimedia franchise need not dismiss this project altogether. There are a handful of mighty pretty pieces of free-floating ephemera about. Yokota plays Robin Guthrie to a host of Elisabeth Frasers (Nancy Elizabeth, Kaori, Caroline Ross, Our Broken Garden’s Anna Bronsted, the Chap’s Claire Hope). This means that despite notable appearances by Casper Clausen of Efterklang and Panos Ghikas of the Chap, Mother is heavy of the X chromosome. That is to say, maternal.
“A Flower White” would probably be the first cut for the mix tape, and it’s a decided departure in its institution of guitar as the base structure of the song, a motif that looms large over Mother. The sparseness recalls that whole mass of indie minor chord fetishization in the ‘90s, particularly motivated by Sonic Youth, with theremin-like high-pitched synth squabbles and pounding, ominous drums to boot. It’s followed by “The Natural Process” and “Reflect Mind”, both flowing with gorgeous waves of ethereal sound, backwards-masked tape loops, and penetrating gaseous atmospherics. Lyrics are often sung like seraphic sirens through the forest and mist, the mothering of the title also possibly alluding to Mother Nature, particularly since we’re dealing with a more organic coven of sounds than usual here. And because of this rupture of words into wailing, the words themselves are often irrelevant.
This suite represents the album’s biggest triumphs, but its surest weaknesses bookend the album. Opener “Love Tendrilises” attempts to capture a mood halfway between the gothic gutter and the stars above Yokomota’s latter-day Shibuya-kei peers like Pizzicato Five and Cornelius. The song’s aboriginal drums and fluttering vocal backdrops are a step in the right direction, but there’s a sense that the song misrepresents the mood of the album. It’s almost like it’s trying to ease the listener into its moodiness with an un-slick segue. The cautiousness does not pay off. At the other end of the album, “Warmth” is a stately bit of ambient piano noodling, appropriately warm as its title suggests, but overall ineffectual.
The lack of a solid beginning or end to Mother highlights the lack of precedent or connection to the Yokota catalogue. When he dives in and assumes full genre regalia, dressing up as James Duval from any given Gregg Araki film, Yokota and the listener win out. Yokota’s music could never really be characterized as urgent, or even prescient, but as a mimicry, it certainly trumps the revisionism Yokota lent to his awful recent cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years”. Still, throughout the album in question, Yokota seems to be playing wise elder for his new friends, who get to assume the roles of the tortured teens. For all the nurturing parenting Yokota offers his cadre of guests on Mother, one hopes he’s still got some regressive yearning left in him.