Wednesday, November 9, 2011

JAM DESHO: Yellow Magic Orchestra - "Perspective"

By Steve Jones.

The Samsonite Samurai is about Japanese music, not just Japanese albums, so I am using this week's space to do TRKRVWZ (a track review) of one of my favorite songs: Perspective" by Yellow Magic Orchestra.  It's the kind of song I could listen to on repeat for the rest of my life

Certain songs you internalize so much that you forget why you loved them in the first place, and explaining to others why it's so good becomes a nightmare.  My situation with "Perspective" resembles that, but damn it, I'm going to try.

As with most songs, what captures my attention first is the music.  It has this hypnotic quality in the way the beat oscillates incessantly back and forth at a walking pace.  The synths and voices possess a softness akin to a lullaby, which may explain why I find myself listening to it more often at night.  Also, oddly enough, the refrain has a melodic line very similar to one from the theme to the video game NiGHTS into Dreams, so "Perspective" gains this weird quality of backwards nostalgia.  Additionally, the song represents an aspect of synth pop that seems to be forgotten these days--that synth pop doesn't have to be drenched in sugar and reverb or loaded with dance beats in order to be good.  This song is slow but not "chill," easy-listening but uncomfortably affecting.  I think this song has a cheesy sort of simplistic sincerity to its arrangement that is especially easy to ridicule today, but that's part of why I like it.

It's ironic that I barely pay attention to the lyrical content of most songs I consume, but one of the songs that really grabs my attention with its words is Japanese.  Well, at the least the lyrics are in English:
Every day, I open the window
Every day, I brush my teeth
Every day, I read the paper
Every day, I see your face

In the gleam of a brilliant twilight
I see people torn apart
From each other
Maybe that's their way of life

Every day, I ride in cars
Every day, I watch TV
Every day, I write my diary
Every day, I go to sleep

In the gleam of a brilliant twilight
I see people torn apart
From each other
Maybe that's their way of life
The straightforwardness of the these short declarative sentences betrays the complexity of emotion I get from this song.  Just as I feel ambiguity in the mood of the arrangment, the tone of the lyrics is still something I struggle to pin down.  On the surface, this song seems upbeat and innocuous enough, but the more I listen to it, the more I hear a hint of sadness in the tone of the synths and the melody of the piano.  I don't know whether "Perspective" is supposed to be life-affirming or a cry of desperate hopelessness, but it feels as if it leans towards the latter.

The repetition of the phrase "every day" would seem to imply a sense of monotony, but neither the content nor delivery quite match that reading.  Daily occurrences like brushing one's teeth, or writing in one's diary, or seeing the face of a lover are actually rather nice things.  But is the narrator opening the window because he wants to escape?  Has he grown tired of that face?  Is sleep at the end of the day his only respite from his 20th century existence?

Clarity eludes the refrain as well, but it strikes me as a powerful and sad image.  Normally, one would think of twilight as the time when family and friends are reunited after a long day of work or school, but the narrator perceives the profound sense of detachment that can hide behind this physical closeness.  The decay of the day is reflective of the decay of relationships.  It is not clear whether the narrator includes himself with those people, but it is possible that the "see your face" sentiment belies some resentment.  Regardless, the narrator justifies these actions with a very C'est la vie attitude; he recognizes, perhaps, that people have to wear these masks in order to function day to day, morning to night.

I'm still not quite sure through whose "perspective" we are seeing the world.  The narrator is about as unreadable as a Murakami protagonist, but the way the song is so methodically written and performed leads me to believe he is a man going through life's motions and, more importantly, is content with doing so, for the time being.  I hear "Perspective" as a mirror image of "Once in a Lifetime."  Both songs appear to address the existential woes of a mid-life crisis, but the perspective of "Perspective" is more subdued, and consequently more melancholy than the cathartic yawps of "Once in a Lifetime."

All that said, I do find some brightness in this track.  Fittingly enough, it became Yellow Magic Orchestra's swan song, being the final song of their final album Service.  As such, it encompasses that same kind of bittersweetness to be found in "The Long and Winding Road" (which is doubly fitting, since YMO are often referred to as the Japanese equivalent of The Beatles).  Perhaps "Perspective" expresses the sentiments of a band ready to go its separate ways, looking with hope and apprehension towards the future.  As it turns out, all three members of YMO enjoyed successful solo careers and continued to collaborate with each other, even reuniting as one band briefly in 1993 and more permanently within the past few years.  So I guess this song does have a happy ending.

If you could not tell from all of the preceding rambling bullshit, "Perspective" confuses me a lot, but I think the fact that I don't quite understand it makes it all the more appealing to me.  And, hopefully, to you as well.

1 comment:

  1. I found your article looking for the lyrics to Perspective. I'd heard it many times but never really paid attention to this song until I heard an acoustic cover by Beef Fantasy
    That made me realize what a brilliant song it is. I totally agree with you about the mix of feelings it causes. I think the looping structure that makes it never want to stop along with whatever those chords are. You sink into that melancholic feeling like you're never coming out again. Dangerous stuff!
    Of course the slightly cheesy synths are what hooked me on YMO from the beginning, a sense of freedom that they can do whatever they want without caring if it's deemed cool or not. I think Hosono is the main culprit of that, his habit of crossing genres like they don't apply to him is what makes him so special. Sakamoto brings those splashes of Japanese drama which set YMO apart from anything else.
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Perspective, even if it's 5 years later.