The last two albums producer/songwriter Yasutaka Nakata made with his group Capsule were drenched in electro and EDM, with tracks designed specifically for the purpose of DJing (the former, World of Fantasy, has the same BPM of 128 throughout the entire album). The tracks segued into each other, each with pulsating, powerful four-on-the-floor beats with massive bass riffs and walls of distorted synths.
It’s no wonder that these elements have seeped into Nakata’s the most famous and perhaps most accessible project, the all-female idol trio Perfume, and their new album, Level 3. He hinted at this in the group’s previous album, JPN, with “album mix” versions of hit singles like “Laser Beam” and “Glitter”. But that album seemed to fail to reconcile the two halves of Nakata’s sound – the club/DJ electro built for the dance floor, and the catchy, bubblegum J-pop even Capsule has been known to produce in their early days.
Perhaps one of the failings of that album was the face that it had strong singles: Nakata seemed to be on a roll during that period, with songs like “Voice”, “Natural Ni Koishite”, and “Laser Beam” coming out every few months. Every song was a hit. Every song was everywhere.
Perfume – “Spring of Life”
And while Level 3 undeniably has its own share of hits – “Spring of Life”, “Spending All My Time”, “Magic of Love” – it’s hard to place them above the group’s previous singles, especially with tracks like “Chocolate Disco”, “Baby Cruising Love”, and “Polyrhythm” being a part of the group’s back catalog. (That said however, I love “Spring of Life”.)
What’s happened however is that Nakata has managed to better integrate these singles into an album format. The “album mix” versions of the singles actually make the songs better, and help make the album seem more focused, bringing out the more EDM-ish elements of each song. “Enter the Sphere”, the first track on the album, may just be Perfume’s best intro song ever, complete with a “shuffle-breakdown” which was a big part of Capsule’s World of Fantasy album. The tracks sets the tone, and brilliantly fades into the album mix of “Spring of Life”. From then on, it’s clubbing time for Perfume, the songs setting the next up perfectly, almost like, that’s right, a DJ set.
There are a few bumps in the road however. “Mirai No Museum”, easily the weakest single of the batch, is thrown in between the brilliant “1mm” – the lead album track that reminds me a bit of a Hikaru Utada song – and “Party Maker”, one of the weirder and exciting tracks on the record. “Mirai No Museum” was written for a Doraemon movie which came out earlier this year. It’s a harmless little tune, but here is sticks out badly and destroys the pacing set up by the five previous tracks. The track is a nice reminder that ultimately, Perfume are a pop group, so certain “lowest common denominator” choices have to be made. In this case, a track like “Mirai No Museum” just has to be on the record because it was a single.
Perfume – “1mm”
Level 3 does its best to balance this conflict of interests however. There are many other highlights here, like “Daijobanai”, which sounds like Nakata taking “Ceramic Girl” off of Game and turning the glitchy vocal mid-section into a whole song, and “Handy Man”, the B-side off of “Magic of Love” (although I think “Hurly Burly” from the “Spending All My Time” single would have been a better choice here).
Level 3 has many of the same problems its predecessor did, but handles them with a bit more grace. I suppose its biggest crutch is its over-indulgence; the album is about 5 tracks too long. It’s the longest Perfume album. Had some of the singles and b-sides been cut, the album would have been a much tighter, concise experience.
But Perfume aren’t Capsule, they’re one of the biggest J-pop groups in existence today. Most listeners probably aren’t aware of the man behind those three pretty faces, a man who had no problem having his singer sing a line like, “I just want to XXX you” in the midst of a flurry of distorted synths a few years ago. In that sense, Level 3 seems to be the happy middle JPN was striving to be, which is maybe better than what most pop groups manage to accomplish.
Capsule – “World of Fantasy”