“Zealously precise” and “exactingly funky” have for a long time been useful terms in summarising the work of former Shibuya-kei godhead Cornelius, and with Mellow Waves we can add “scrupulously smooth”.
The album has been described by some reviewers as being warmer than its predecessors Sensuous and Point, and in terms of the sound production and overall more richly layered nature of the songs that’s perhaps true. The closing duo of Rain Song and Crépuscule make fine use of acoustic guitar, the sliding of fingers along the frets during the latter becoming a seamless element of the subtle soundscape that Cornelius builds around it. However, the album is no less clinical in terms of how it deploys the scientific principles of sonic warmth and calculates to a fraction of a degree the ideal angle to which it should be laid back.
That’s not to deny that there is a clear shift in approach though. On earlier albums, in particular on Point, Cornelius made a lot out of songs based around a single musical idea that he would then develop in subtle variations throughout the song in a way that nevertheless didn’t compromise the concept’s essential minimalism. Mellow Waves shifts the emphasis away from that mode of song construction, with most tracks taking the form of more or less conventionally structured pop songs containing a multitude of moving parts.
What sets Mellow Waves apart is that, where earlier albums thrived on the tension between organic elements (a live instrument, a drop of water) and technology, now Cornelius seems more interested in eliminating that tension, exploring the areas where the barrier between the organic and electronic becomes permeable. The gorgeous, Eno-esque Surfing on Mind Wave Pt.2 is a case in point, with strings that phase between organic and synthetic sounds, and then, as the electronic effects seem to be taking over, the sounds of voices, gulls and ocean waves start to creep into the mix.
Cornelius shares a lot in common with a band like Steely Dan, in that he pursues with scientific precision the emotional and sensual truths other artists simply feel their ways towards. Whether he gets closer here than on earlier albums is debatable, but his process has never been so richly developed.