Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Obscure Alternatives (1978)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 4/5
Slower, weirder and with deconstructionist ambitions – yeah, this is the Japan I know and love.

“Sylvian has gone on record saying that Obscure Alternatives should have been their debut album.[citation needed]”

Citation or no citation, I’m willing to believe the veracity of this quote I found on Wikipedia. There’s a sense of artistic dissatisfaction permeating this record, made manifest in a stylistic diversity which some might call incoherent and which I will call delightful. The various styles here are all in service of a coherent enough mood that their presence feels natural, and anyway, the lines between post-punk, funk and dub have always been vague enough that the shifts here are scarcely noticeable. So don’t complain – this record is by and large an excellent, ambitious effort that deserves your attention. Don’t listen to anyone (and that includes Allmusic!) who tries to tell you that this is inferior to their debut – it’s better, and it only hints at better things to come.

See, this is where Japan acquire the weirdness that has characterised them in my mind since I first heard Tin Drum. Clearly being dissatisfied with the conventionality of their debut, here Japan sets about deconstructing it, rebuilding it with half the parts in the wrong places and with all sorts of sharp edges left where they shouldn’t be. Take the song “Deviation”, for instance; it’s this weird, jittery-jumpy funk-rock song that sounds kinda like it could be the evil twin of any of the songs off Adolescent Sex, with its sandpapery rhythm guitar strokes and its spiky four-note lead riff. Sylvian’s smooth, silken croon (the style that’d end up becoming his primary method of vocal delivery from their next album onwards) only adds to the general sense that something is off somehow, even if the corny spaceship-taking-off synths at the end kinda spoil the atmosphere. And then there’s the immediately preceding song, the title track, which veers into outright creepy territory with its woozy, drugged-out chorus; a bunch of syrupy, vaguely unnatural-sounding vocals all harmonize in this drawn-out drawl, and I’m checking my drink to see if I’ve accidentally been consuming sizzurp this whole time by mistake. The song goes on for seven hazy minutes, with soft rhythm guitars jangling and crackling in the foreground as Sylvian presides over the whole scene from the shadows like a particularly sexually frustrated Sith lord, and I love pretty much all of it. 

I’m also a big fan of “Love Is Infectious”, a post-punk number that sounds oddly slanted somehow, like some song from their debut viewed through a distorting prism. It’s got an angular, loud riff worthy of Gang of Four and a steady, creeping bassline worthy of Joy Division (though, naturally, better played and more complex than anything Peter Hook could come up with), and a pleasingly skeezy set of lyrics about female masturbation from a way-too-interested Sylvian. There’s also a guitar solo that’s accompanied by a lot of cacophonous rhythm guitar stabbing and drum smashing, the end result being that the solo sounds good even though, for all I know, it may not be – context is everything, after all, and these guys have learned how to apply themselves just right. Just take a look at “…Rhodesia”, which has a formula that for many other bands would spell disaster. I don’t need to tell you just how low the success rate is for white reggae, let alone white rock bands taking brief excursions into reggae in the midst of otherwise fully rockin’ albums, but this song actually works pretty well. That might be because it is, specifically, dub rather than straight-up reggae, and the jump from funk to dub really isn’t such an intimidating one, but truth be told I think it might just be that all the other white rock bands to try their hands at reggae (outside of the post-punk sphere, mind you) were idiots who didn’t understand it; Japan are most assuredly not idiots, and they understand that there’s more to reggae than a repeated rhythm guitar pluck and a positive set of lyrics. What we get this time is, instead, nearly seven minutes of reserved disaffection, with Sylvian drawling out lyrics about Nazis “burning niggers in a cotton field” while a downbeat, celestial atmosphere develops behind him, aided at one point by a fantastically-produced solo from Rob Dean that really does sound like a comet hurtling across the sun’s magnetic field. It’s not the best song on the album, but it’s lovely and welcome. I’ve just been going through a dub phase lately, too – imagine my surprise to discover a dub song on the new wave album I’d been planning to review this week, and imagine my further surprise when it turned out to be good!

In fact, this album is nicely consistent. Of the four remaining tracks, only one – the opener, “Automatic Gun” – is mediocre; it’s a decent enough new wave song with a fairly good (if very conservative) rock n’ roll riff, but it’s not at all memorable and it opens the album on a dull note. But we’ve also got “Sometimes I Feel So Low”, a title to which Sylvian fully commits by agonizingly drawing out every syllable in what sounds worrisomely like real desperation, and “Suburban Berlin”, which is just gorgeous. It’s got this reserved, effortlessly cool electric piano line for a main motif, with some scratchy rhythm guitars half-mimicking it, and there’s this wonderful early instrumental break where the keys fade and the guitars louden into punkish monsters as they take over fully. I mistook it for an instrumental hook at first, but then after a minutes’ more buildup the actual hook arrives and the song beautifully ascends into the realm of grandiosity, complete with string section synths and soaring arrogance from Sylvian. It’s a contender for my favourite track on the album, and it’s certainly the best hook he’s written up to this point. 

Appropriately enough, he doesn’t try to top it – the next and final track is an instrumental called “The Tenant”, and it’s a pretty good tone poem even if it ain’t the best one I ever heard. There are plinky synths, quiet rainy-day pianos, and a really good, contemplative, vaguely metallic guitar solo that sounds a lot like something Wata’d come up with for one of Boris’ more conventional rock songs, particularly in the way it settles on a lengthy one-note drone towards the end. It’s a nice foreshadow of the stuff the band would end up doing later in their career, albeit not as good as some of the highs they’d eventually reach, and I hear tell Sylvian spent a lot of time exploring the sort of ideas covered in this song more fully in his solo career. All that may be true, but let’s not let it lessen this album, which is a great slice of weirdo new wave of the sort I haven’t really heard anywhere else. It’s no wonder Sylvian thought this should have been their debut, considering that their actual debut merely sounded like a pretty good pastiche of Bowie, Roxy and Television. This thing, by contrast, has an identity and suggests a future – a future I’ll be pleased to investigate myself in the coming weeks.