The last time I wrote about Shugo Tokumaru, in 2008, I talked about how for pop to stay vital, it needs to become more complex and how Tokumaru was an example of this next leap. I don’t know how true that really is; it’s more like wishful thinking borne out of a boredom of the twee and lo-fi and chillwave and every other popular permutation of pop that’s around these days. A lot of it’s fine – not troublesome or aesthetically vile or anything like that, just simple and unengaging. What I wanted or hoped for was a movement beyond this, to more complex music, toward music that compels listeners and brings them into the album as an active participant.
In any event, listening to Tokumaru’s latest album Port Entropy, a lot of my earlier concerns seem well-intentioned yet misplaced. The album isn’t as immediately dynamic as other albums of his (though there are moments that touch on that, like the beginning of “River Low” or the end of “Laminate” or the whole of “Drive-Thru”), but it’s still a solid album. Gone is the complexity of the minimalism-influenced pop and left are simply well-constructed songs with pleasant hooks. Nothing is as intellectually and emotionally engaging as Exit, but it’s enjoyable all the same. Time will of course tell whether or not this is something that calls out to me, something I remember like I remember Exit, but at the very least, it’s interesting enough to listen to. So that ambivalence comes in – can I fault the album for being good, but not being as good as the standards I’ve made up for genre-pushing or "next level" indie pop?
Maybe one of the big problems is that with simpler songs, the lyrics and vocals stand out more. As I listened to the album, I thought about which parts of Tokumaru’s songs do the heavy-lifting. On earlier work, the complexity of the music was enough to engage the listener, to either distract one away from his lyrics or vocal melodies or to create a level of brain-buzzing enjoyment such that those elements didn’t matter. Without that level though, his lyrics are front and center and to a Western audience, or at least those that cannot understand Japanese, this is meaningless. Tokumaru has a wispy way of singing; there isn’t much emotional weight behind the melodies. This means the music itself has to do the brunt of the work, and since the songs themselves are simpler, they lose a lot of novelty.
Perhaps this is different in Japan. Maybe in that context, it made sense to write with a more restrained hand. If one can understand the lyrics, and if they’re engaging, then the songs take on a different dimension. To someone like me, though, that knows perhaps five words of Japanese, well, perhaps that’s a big reason that Port Entropy doesn’t grab me as much as his earlier work does.