Veteran Japanese Artist’s Blissful Pessimism
Mellow Waves marks Keigo Oyamada’s return as Cornelius with a new full-length album after nearly 11 years. Originally part of the duo that made up Flipper’s Guitar, Cornelius, with albums like Fantasma and Point under his belt, is a prime representative of the eccentric experimental pop that the Shibuya-kei movement is known for. While crate-digging in a manner akin to hip hop sampling to fuse influences from the ‘60s, electronic music, and French and Brazilian pop, Cornelius’ past work artfully layered seemingly disparate genres into a seamless, eclectic product.
Cornelius continues to display that kind of skilled, unique production on Mellow Waves. Though the intricate but tender guitars are striking and prominent on every song on the record, what makes Mellow Waves another mark of Cornelius’ genius is how harmoniously the experimental synths blend into the instrumentals, juxtaposing with the more traditional sounds of the guitars and the acoustic chimes with subtle electronic buzzes and punches. This is very evident on the album’s opener, “If You’re Here,” where Cornelius pairs jazzy electric guitar solos with sparse, synthesized echoes of piano, drum beats and heavy plucks of bass. The dramatic drums resonate in the way a heartbeat would, which is precisely the subject matter of the seemingly innocent love song. However, upon closer inspection, it is suggested that Cornelius speaks of over-attachment and dependency, and with the heartbeat-like drums in the background, it constantly reminds of how vital this lover is to his life, perhaps in an over-indulgent way.
The rest of the album carries on this theme of chaos and instability masked by initially cheerful melodies and lyrics. The standout track “Sometime / Someplace” floats by peacefully, as the acoustic guitar flutters around claps and tambourines, lighthearted bass and Cornelius’ pleasantly gentle voice. As the track progresses, it becomes more and more layered and erratic, with heavier drums, horns and an electric guitar adding texture to this walk-in-the-park of a song. Somewhere in the second half of the song, however, the instrumental completely switches into a grimy, mind-bending electric guitar solo with whopping synths before switching right back to the bouncy and perky tone it had in the beginning. Such a disorienting switch-up only adds to the cynical acquiescence in the lyrics: Cornelius cheekily bids goodbye to the memories, loved ones, and even the stars that will all eventually “fade away,” “blur out of sight” or “burn up and disappear” anyways. This grand juxtaposition of sanguine melodies and instrumentals with pessimistic lyrics can also be found on “In a Dream,” where Cornelius discusses the looming catastrophe on Earth with comets nearing, global warming increasing and political chaos snowballing in Japan and the rest of the world. He sings this, calm as ever, over beautiful harps, bright piano chords, and bassy synths. In both cases, Cornelius’ technical showmanship and lyrical sardonicism hilariously combine to create multifaceted highlights on Mellow Waves.
Even the slower, simpler cuts on Mellow Waves satisfy, both sonically and lyrically. On the English-language track “The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness,” Cornelius only seasons this soft guitar ballad with jingling bells, the omnipresent bassy synths and most impactfully, stretches of silence. Here, he and Shintaro Sakamoto tell the story of “the sweetest child” who is everything her parents have dreamed of but who also suppresses her own emotional needs in order to fulfill parental and, later on, societal expectations of perfection. Here, the few instances of silence in this dismal lullaby emphasize the bleakness of the child’s situation in a bone-chilling manner.
Cornelius has immense strength in his technicality and compositions; this much has been obvious since 1997’s Fantasma. What makes Mellow Waves particularly special amongst other albums released this year and amongst Cornelius’ discography is how unnerving the lyrics can become, especially so when the instrumentals and melodies are beautiful and rosy. Cornelius proves his wit, humor and poeticism in his ability to incorporate such dissimilar factors into a complex and disorienting sonic mosaic of the ailments of humanity in the modern world.