Just as the world was about to come to a screeching halt, I was preparing for my now annual trip back to Tokyo. This year the dates of my trip lined up perfectly for me to catch a rare live performance of Shintaro Sakamoto at Tokyo’s legendary LIQUIDROOM. If that name sounds familiar that is because AS 11 marked the first time that not one, but two Japanese artists, Ogre You Asshole and Shintaro Sakamoto, made it onto one of our playlists. Unfortunately, my trip was cancelled and so here I’m reviewing Sakamoto’s sophomore album Let’s Dance Raw.
Over the past decade Shintaro Sakamoto has released three critically acclaimed albums on his own Zelone Records. As if this weren’t already enough of an achievement, prior to going solo Sakamoto was frontman for the legendary psychedelic garage rock band Yura Yura Teikoku (literally, “the wobbling empire”) for over two decades. Despite their level of fame and cultural significance in their native Japan, it took the band some 15 years before they performed their first overseas performance in New York. While Sakamoto may not be a household name, in the intervening years he’s managed to build up quite the cult following worldwide, touring across China, Europe and the Americas. This recognition has resulted in him collaborating with the likes of Devendra Banhart on several occasions, first on a split 7” whereby Banhart covered Another Planet off 2016’s Love If Possible (in Japanese nonetheless) and recently on Brazil’s own O Terno’s most recent album.
Compared to his prior group, Sakamoto’s solo effort is a very pared down and silky-smooth experience. His seemingly carefree approach to his solo work manages to create something truly unique. 2012’s How to Live with a Phantom, exuded a breezy exotica sound that was very reminiscent of Beck’s Tropicalia. If you don’t understand Japanese, on first listen of Sakamoto’s sophomore release, 2014’s Let’s Dance Raw, has a very dreamy and surreal feel to it. While they have been toned down quite a bit, the tropical soundscapes from How to Live with a Phantom are still present with the addition of a steel guitar, bazilian cuica and güiro on most tracks. Despite these relaxing and playful sounds there are a lot of darker themes to unpack here once you peel back those initial layers.
Picking up the album we are greeted by a grim skeletal caricature of Sakamoto, steel guitar in hand, super imposed in front of a nuclear mushroom cloud. With a track listing filled with song titles such as Birth of the Super Cult, Never Liked You, But Still Nostalgic and Extremely Bad Man, maybe this isn’t the laid-back record you thought it was. In trying to explain his ideas behind the album, Sakamoto had this to say:
“…the scene I had in mind was of a light-hearted commercial for a resort hotel playing on a TV that was sitting somewhere on earth, with no one around, because mankind had gone extinct.”
Reading through the liner notes, many of the tracks touch on the themes of humanity’s self-destructive tendencies and our resulting downfall. Birth of the Super Cult is most certainly the laid-back backing track to the light-hearted commercial Sakamoto was referring to above. Here, he croons about the birth of a religion some 2,000 years ago that would eventually bring about the end of the world. Despite the dark themes he is still able to inject some silliness and David Lynch vibes through his helium-voiced companion.
The album’s namesake, Let’s Dance Raw is a lively track that leans more towards the groove / disco side of things and is the catchiest song on the album. Even here, despite Sakamoto encouraging us to dance and smile along with him, he warns us not to check if this world has become hell.
The other prevalent theme is the culture of conformity and its constraints on Japanese society. You Can Be a Robot, Too is a fun little number that manages to incorporate a banjo and would not be out of place in a Saturday morning kids cartoon. The song opens by telling us to insert a chip between our eyebrows in order to become a robot. Sakamoto assures us that not only does it not hurt, but that it’s cheap too! There are lawyer robots, dental assistant robots, toy store owner robots, mom robots, whatever your heart desires. This coming from a country where every year the entire country’s fresh university graduates start their new jobs on the first weekday of April, all wearing the exact same formal black suit (Note: there is a remix of this song using kids voices with an accompanying cartoon music video that looks like a propaganda cartoon from an alternate universe). On Like an Obligation, Sakamoto’s smooth voice calmly describes how important things to us slowly melt away while we can only sit and watch because of the duties forced upon us.
Sakamoto has created a perfectly surreal soundtrack for a post-apocalyptic world, and I will happily have this record on repeat until the time comes.