After the collective “meh” that engulfed observers of the Japanese pop scene upon the release of Perfume’s sweet but out of character last single Mirai no Museum, Magic of Love has been greeted by a massive sigh of relief that the producer who has almost singlehandedly held up Japan’s tattered reputation for modern, forward-thinking pop culture over the last few years hasn’t completely lost his mojo in the warm sludge of the anime theme song mangroves. As a few people around me correctly noted, it’s massively refreshing to know that in Magic of Love, there is still someone making mainstream Japanese pop that’s musically clever, subtle, and recognisably contemporary even outside the atrophying cultural Galapagos of these islands.
That said, Yasutaka Nakata has been pulling a similar trick of technopop bleeps over slippery electro-funk for so long now that I have to wonder if “clever” and “subtle” aren’t in danger of becoming gloss over music that’s really just “busy”. For me, the best Perfume single of the last few years is still Laser Beam, which is a busy as, I don’t know, a collaborative industrial development area in the demilitarized zone between the Republic of Beavers and the Democratic People’s Republic of Bees, but its catchy, vaguely nostalgic melody and killer chorus made it a perfect marriage of simplicity and complexity and one of the best Japanese pop songs in recent memory. Magic of Love is strong enough (if utterly predictable) in the chorus, but like nearly all of Nakata’s songs, the melody in the verses is basically the sound of someone in a karaoke box going “hum-de-hum-de-hum, nah-nah-nah” to fill in time when they realise too late that the only bit of the song they know the tune to is the chorus. Nakata seems to recognise his weakness in this area and as he has with so many recent songs, he jumps in straight away with the catchiest part, buries the flabby verse between the chorus and the funky, intelligently arranged electro of the instrumental break, and then wipes the second verse out of our memory by repeating the chorus again and again in the outro, like a boot stamping on an unimaginative chord progression for eternity.
It does seem though, that while his melody writing skills seem to have stagnated rather, his ability as a producer and arranger is going from strength to strength, and the similarities with capsule’s (admittedly better) Step on the Floor give further evidence that the flow of musical ideas between capsule and Perfume has been re-established after diplomatic relations between the two groups were temporarily severed in about 2010. There’s also what seems like a growing confidence in Kashiyuka, Nocchi and A-chan’s abilities to carry a song with something like their own natural voices. Perhaps this is merely a reaction to the growing ubiquity of Vocaloid voice synthesiser characters like Hatsune Miku in contemporary Japanese electronic pop, but Magic of Love sees each member’s voice now pretty much recognisable as itself, which while a small point in the overall tapestry of sounds in the song, nevertheless adds depth and texture to the music and as long as it doesn’t become an excuse for more dreary five-minute-plus ballads, it could become a useful tool in the producer’s box in the future.