Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 4.5/5
Aww yeah, this is the shiet! New romantic located firmly in the uncanny valley. Proper good stuff.

Rob Dean left after the release of this album, and it’s easy to see why. He’s got about as much presence on this record as Jason Newsted got on …And Justice For All, except that there’s more reason to complain here because Dean is, you know, actually good. I always found his solos a tad hit or miss, but he could turn in some really good ones when called for, and his riffs were pretty uniformly awesome. So, I should be bitter – but I’m not, ‘cos truth is by now Japan just didn’t need the guy anymore. Guitars are nice, but by this point in their career they were getting more artistic mileage out of their synths, and Dean, good as he is, just wasn’t all that compatible with the thoroughly non-rock styles explored on this album. So he is, effectively, out, and replacing him is the great Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra on additional synths. Say – the band were fuggin’ called Japan, how did it take ’em this long to get an actual Japanese person in the band?

His presence is definitely felt, anyway. You can hear bits that are redolent of YMO in a few places, like the burbling generator-synths in the background on the title track and “Methods of Dance”, or the big, atmospheric synth riffs on “Burning Bridges” and “Taking Islands in Africa”. I’m not too big on the latter two, actually – the former is just kind of a mediocre new age song with a fairly bad smooth jazz sax solo (apparently courtesy of Mick Karn – stick to the bass, friendo!) and the latter is about the only thing on the album that really does sound unpleasantly dated. Some of those synth sounds really wouldn’t fly today, even if the riffs they’re playing are totally super catchy. Those (aside from an irritating reappearance by the bad sax on “Methods of Dance”) are the only weak moments on the album, though – the rest of it’s all fucking awesome, and I love it. I love it all so much, in fact, that I’m not sure I can even pick a favourite track outright; instead, I’ll just run through my shortlist.

Fer a start, we have the title track, which is a) the first good Japan album opener since their debut and b) one of the best songs they ever made. It’s got this crazy-ass, woozy bassline from Karn that sets the whole thing at an edge, and a drawn-out, almost druggy hook that sounds like it was sung with an unsettling rictus grin. That’s Sylvian on the whole record, actually – he is a fascinating beast on this album. He’s a gentleman, sure, but he’s a gentleman who sounds like he might bare fangs and sink into your throat if you waltz with him for too long under the moonlight. His croon is so affected and over-the-top that it ends up sounding like a face-mask that doesn’t quite fit right, or a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes in the right way; it’s off, and it’s one of the things that makes the album feel so uncanny. Anyway, the title track is also the only song on the album where Dean actually is noticeably present, albeit barely – he gets a bare, soft chiming riff to play with for the first half, and a few rhythm pinpricks in an instrumental break he’d normally be allowed to fill with a guitar solo. Instead, the band let the synths breathe while Sylvian quietly indulges in some wordless vocal noodling – very pleasant stuff, for sure.

Then there’s “Nightporter”, which has a fair economy of moving parts and is all the more lovely for it. Karn’s not present on this one – it’s just a lovely classical piano waltz from Richard Barbieri (damn – I think this might be the first time I’ve mentioned their keyboardist by name this whole series! How’d I get away with that?) over which Sylvian tenderly and softly croons a love song into the ear of a soon-to-be victim, with some light accompaniment from a couple of strings (or, perhaps, string-imitating synths) and a really well-structured, cathartic hook. It’s utterly gorgeous, divine stuff, and the seven minutes blow by almost too quickly – I could listen to this forever. Say – didn’t progressive rock spend its entire lifespan trying to figure out ways to put classical influences in the pop/rock format? And did Japan just blow ’em all out the water in seven minutes – without even a single showy time signature change? Bloody ‘ell, I think they did! I’ve nothing against prog rock, of course, but it can move aside – synthpop was better.

Anyway, there’s also “Ain’t That Peculiar”, which turns out to be a Marvin Gaye cover. Sylvian sounds positively delighted on this track (uh oh – better start looking for drained bodies!) and the way he draws out the word “PecUUU-lyaaar” is wonderful, as is Karn’s unsteadily climbing bassline. Karn’s best work, though, is probably on “Swing”, where his bassline stumbles and lurches about in an asymmetrical fashion like some blind beast from another plane of existence as Sylvian and Barbieri (and, perhaps, Sakamoto) patiently set about building up to one of the most satisfyingly-structured hooks I think I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t soar or hit catharsis, exactly, but it also doesn’t lose any energy – it sort of goes sideways, peppering these (possibly synthesised) saxophone bursts around Sylvian before sliding out into a full-on jazz sax orgasm for a tantalising few seconds, and then landing seamlessly back in the verse like it was nothing! It’s about the only time the sax actually, properly works on the album, and does it ever work. This song is gorgeous, velvety twilight joy for six and a half minutes; listening to it is like draping myself in an exquisitely-stitched warm blanket in the English winter. I love it deeply.

There’s also “My New Career”, in which Karn’s bass climbs up the walls like a spider or Thom Yorke while synths suck away all the light and Sylvian sadistically, sensuously sings sweet nothings into the dark. “I could never hurt anyone/ Least of all you”, he assures us as he beckons us towards him, and I don’t believe a word of it – but I follow like a lamb. It’s a spiderweb, and Sylvian is the widow sitting patiently in the middle; it’s a dark, alluring, opalescent stone cathedral containing a grinning devil. Man, this album is amazing – couple of not-so-hot tracks, sure, but when the rest is this good what does it matter? Listen to it, I urge ya – just stay in the lit areas! ‘Cos if you give those pale white jaws the chance to close ’round your hot flesh, they ain’t never opening again. New romantic had barely begun, and already Japan were madly deconstructing and reconstructing it into gothic and otherworldly shapes; their appetite for the new and unusual was insatiable, it seems, and that is the truest indicator of artistic excellence I think you’re ever likely to find. Japan were restless and relentless innovators, true carriers of the avant-garde flame within the realm of pop music, and if I had my way they’d all be canonised national treasures by now. 

Well, maybe all except Rob. Poor guy!

Author: tomymostalas


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