Perfume: Magic of Love

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.

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14 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Track

14 responses to “Perfume: Magic of Love

  1. UltimateMusicSnob

    Nakata has a way of providing some very sophisticated, often very tricky musical ideas in an easily digestible package that is designed to appeal to a wide audience while the expert stuff goes no beneath the surface. What strikes my ear in this song is that the verse, the instrumental passages, and the chorus are all in different keys! Welding that together into a seamless whole is a pretty amazing stroke, especially considering Nakata doesn’t work through a modulation as older songwriters like Barry Manilow or Elton John might. He just jumps straight, and it works.
    For those keeping score, the chorus is F# minor, the verse is A minor, and the mid-song break is even dicier: it starts on a D minor7th chord vamp, which sort of sounds like the key, but then takes off through related chords, hitting the most harmonically distant chord (B flat) just before turning back to the verse. One more twist–after all that F# minor chorus, the very last chord of the chorus the *second* time you hear it (but not the first) is F# *major*. That actually makes it even trickier to transition, since A minor is much further away from F# major (6 sharps) than it is from F# minor (3 sharps away). You don’t have to know any of this is going on to enjoy the song, but you feel the key changes anyway, like suddenly turning a corner, even if you’re not tracking the music theory. The melody helps him arrive back “home” in the chorus, since the tune outlines a straight descending F# minor triad four times (C#-A-F#). The verse melody feels less anchored, because it spends more time on the 5th and 6th scale steps of A minor (the notes E and F), hitting A just for an instant. The melody also helps him transition back to F# minor when the singers start the final phrase on C# (outside the key of A minor) and climb up to F#. And of course Nakata also marks each of these sections with a matching change in synth patches.
    All this musical machinery is working away, but on the level of just listening for enjoyment, it’s all silky smooth, not feeling forced or strange at all. For my money, it’s nothing at all on the power and impact of ‘Edge’, but I understand that sort of stuff is off limits for Perfume now, more’s the pity.

    • Not having the musical background to unpick this kind of stuff from listening, I find this kind of analysis fascinating. I sometimes wonder if I’d prefer it if Nakata were sometimes a bit less seamless in his transitions though. He used to take delight in wrong footing the listener by suddenly and jarringly disrupting the rhythm by skipping and inserting beats, and even in Love The World, probably the first Perfume song I ever properly didn’t like (my position has softened over time and I quite like it now), it had this one really weird, out of place chord change transitioning between the verse and chorus that seemed more exciting to me than a more sophisticated and subtle shift. However, it is great that there’s someone out there doing something this off the wall with such mainstream pop.

  2. UltimateMusicSnob

    Oh, me too. My favorite Nakata stuff is mostly from capsule, truly out-there tracks like ‘crazeee skyhopper’, and wrong-foot (if slick) productions like ‘World of Fantasy’, which not only fools me on the opening beat, it keeps shifting my ear between the deep kick and the just-off-the-best synth loop throughout. Nakata makes that one just totally live in the ambiguity between two completing claims for the underlying beat. When it finally sails off into an uncluttered beat at 6:24, what a moment! And there’s a point in ‘Edge’ where Nakata changes the chord by one upward chromatic step, not only out of the chord and the key, but out of classic harmony completely, ramping the dissonance WAY up and just twisting the emotional knife at the perfect spot. That particular chord hasn’t occurred *anywhere* in pop music, period, that I know of, and no wonder, it’s really out there in terms of the music theory.
    From the commenters I’ve read here and there, Nakata can do basically whatever he wants with capsule, while Perfume, being a much bigger commercial entity, is under pretty tight rein. Once I got my ears perked up to listen for them, I find these musical tricks in nearly everything Perfume has (and MEG, and even Kyary Pamyu, deceptively simple though her stuff seems), they’re just buried a little deeper. You’re right about ‘Mirai no Museum’, though. I got nothin’.

    • That’s my favourite bit about World of Fantasy as well, the way the beat kicks in at the wrong place, which totally throws off your sense of what the “on” beat is that you’ve got from the synth, which disorentates you for the whole song after that. My only real problem with capsule is the way he insists on using all these generic samples rather than sourcing his own. I suppose it saves him having to worry about clearing the samples, and he does claim that he doesn’t really listen to any other people’s music (which I don’t believe for a minute). I think I demand something a bit different from Perfume though. With capsule, I’m happy for him to just play around to his little heart’s content and make as mad music as he can. With Perfume, I’m always happy when he does that of course, but they’re a bubblegum pop group, so first and foremost, I like there to be something bold and simple as the beating heart of the song.

      Edge is an interesting one. The little bedroom synthpop band I’m involved in covered Edge a year or so back, and there were so many things going on with it and they were combined in such a distinctive way that we decided it would be stupid and annoying to try to include them all. In the end, our approach was to gut the song of almost everything and turn it into what basically amounted to a single chord drone with a krautrock beat. I don’t think I actually played on it or anything though, I just sort of said, “Let’s do this…” and then when I got home from work the next night, the others had already basically finished it.

  3. UltimateMusicSnob

    I’ve noticed how very different mainstream electronic dance music is from Nakata’s various hybrids. Daft Punk’s ‘Homework” is almost Minimalist by comparison, while Nakata always has lots of things going on. For my taste, that’s a plus, because it means N’s pieces will keep yielding new elements for me to hear on repeated listens. I prefer Bach over Vivaldi for the same reason–Bach can get really complex. I like Sergeant Pepper better than Help! for the same reason: so much to listen for. The thing you’re looking for in Perfume, though is the hardest part for any composer, complex or no. The Beatles could do that over and over, perfect hooks by the hundreds. Some bands never have more than one in a whole career. This latest for Perfume is about a B- on that toughest scale, maybe a C+, next to what I already know Nakata can do. He definitely knows how to set up a great chorus, and I love the choruses of Perfume’s Laser beam, Spring of Life, Dream Fighter, Glitter, Polyrhythm, many more. If I just wanted glossy Asian pop (I don’t), I’d just listen to AKB48 or whoever the latest idol is. I frankly forget that music the moment I hear it.

    • Nakata can definitely discover an awesome pop tune on his day. I think he gets there about once in every four songs he writes or thereabouts. As a pop songwriter he’s no, say, Vince Clarke, but he’s as good as almost anyone in pop at the moment. I think that it’s as a producer and arranger that he really shines though.

      AKB I really can’t stand. I wouldn’t even call what they do slick, it’s so cheap sounding. But with songs like those, even someone like Eno producing couldn’t save them.

  4. UltimateMusicSnob

    I can claim just one piece of synth-music cred, which is that I first heard European house music in East Germany in 1992 (Leipzig). I found it just took waaaayyyy too long to get through its thin musical materials (probably because I was listening without the benefit of, umm, chemical supplements). I didn’t have any reason to change that aspect of my own taste-reaction, even for KraftWerk or Daft Punk, until I got to the MUCH busier and to my musical mind, richer, music of Nakata. It still looks to me like the reigning aesthetic mode in synth dance music is way more Minimalist than I have patience for.

  5. perfumeophile

    Really great conversation here.

    I just want to add that any expectations for some super avant pop from “Magic Of Love” should be tempered with the reality that it was a commission for a candy commercial.

    Having said that, I think it’s a great song with lots of cool percussion fills as he moves from section to section and, along with the video featuring quasi-Carnaby street dresses and mod graphics in the design elements, the perfect introduction for Perfume to a British audience. I agree that the fairly untreated vocals are a plus, too

    I was thinking of “Marai no Museum” the other day because i just heard the new Kyary b-side which is also a theme song, this time to a tv show, and it’s the first Nakata song for her I’ve heard where my reaction was that it was a complete dud [a word I never thought I’d use to describe any of his songs.]

    It leaves me with the question: does he dumb down the tracks aimed at a true mass audience [one beyond just music fandom] or do the third party producers demand it?

    I’ve heard enough remixes of “Museum” to believe that it’s a very good song, but that the less than hyperactive arrangement leaves most listeners with that “blah” reaction.

    However, since my Nakata obsession has kicked in I can go weeks without hearing any other electronica [or synth pop] and when I do [first with the new Depeche Mode lp and more recently with the electro pop parts of the new Dido] I’m instantly struck by how simple everyone else’s work is.

    It’s like he’s writing “I Am The Walrus” and everyone else is still writing “I Want to Hold your Hand”

    Ian, if you have a few moments, can you fill in some backstory of the 2010 Perfume/Capsule communication breakdown and flesh out your Clarke/Nataka songwriter comparison?

  6. UltimateMusicSnob

    Exactly, perfumeophile. Just on the purely musical elements: how many there are, how they’re used and fit together–Nakata is working on many dimensions at once. My kids are Daft Punk fans, and I see that DP have ingenious ideas. But they are so few, and so slowly introduced! Three minutes of any Nakata-for-Perfume production is typically a deep, rich set of musical ideas sufficient to fill an album side for other techno makers.
    I’ve gone through lots of Nakata in various guises, and it sounds to me like least-compromised is clearly capsule (no candy manufacturer is going to allow the sounds at 1:30 in their commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3-_jw33zfc), while Perfume, MEG, Kyary and Ami Suzuki are all consciously pitched at particular genres and audiences. “Dumbed down” is not too strong language to use, I think, because Nakata’s best material is so dense, complex, and musically strong. Kyary’s melodies, for example, are radically simple, a sort of deliberate naivete’ is built into them. I need to qualify that, though, because Kyary’s whole persona/aesthetic is not merely kid stuff–it’s more of a particular perspective on a cultural milieu, and one which is more interesting, IMO, than the milieu it’s drawn from. Kyary is pushing the state of the art, and Nakata’s music joins the perspective, nominally ‘kawaii’, and also pushes the state of the art.

  7. perfumeophile

    Just when I was about to note that Nakata no longer writes Perfume songs with Japanese motifs…along comes “Handy Man” with it’s sampled traditional string instrument leading the arrangement…melody is vaguely “Laser Beam” too, but there’s a big pumping Eurobass line and some interesting dissonance….a terrific record

    audio here

    • It’s the B-side of Magic of Love. Shows he can still pull off these catchy bubblegum numbers. I think it compliments the A-side nicely and makes the whole single much more of the complete package. Nice.

    • UltimateMusicSnob

      Thanks for the link! Hadn’t heard this one before.

  8. perfumeophile

    As Ian correctly points out it, it’s the B-side of “Magic” and I agree that it makes the single more complete…there’s also instrumental versions of both songs on the disc and I’ve seen them posted at Tumblr but it doesn’t appear they’ve been uploaded to YouTube yet….

    I suspect that “Handy Man” will get featured in the set list for Perfume’s Ultra Korea dance festival appearance and “MoL” won’t …hopefully “Edge” and “Game” will get performed there as well

  9. Pingback: Perfume: Magic of Love and Handy Man | Analog Housou

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