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Review – Shifuku no Oto

August 4, 2008

I know a lot of you will be thinking… “She moans about having too much work ALL THE TIME, yet she finds time to do this?”.

This is my review on Shifuko no Oto (Ijah’s note: loosely translated, it could mean either the clothes that you wear or absolute happiness. The dual meaning is deliberate); the album that I think is the best Mr Children album to-date.

Namonaki Uta - actual lyrics

Namonaki Uta - actual lyrics

6 years had passed since I first wrote about Mr Children. 8 since I first heard Namo Naki Uta, the song that I mistakenly thought was sung by Glay. I know now that I have quite a handful of factual, though unintended, errors about the band in my original article. I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to get my hands on additional Mr Children albums and DVDs. By sheer dumb luck I found a copy of Shinkai (Deep Sea) in Speedy Video and a friend helped to purchase Kind of Everything and It’s A Wonderful World when he docked in Tokyo (long story, but yes he’s kinda a sailor of sorts).

To be able to give a review of the said album, you must first understand my frame of mind.

A while back, a poll was taken to decide which one is the best Mr Children album ever. The result was unanimous: it’s gotta be Shinkai. Now, I have with me a Mr Children album with the cover featuring a chair sunken at the bottom of the ocean. I had NO idea that THIS was indeed the Shinkai album. So I can honestly say I listened to this album without any preconceived ideas.

And you know what, Shinkai is a very good album. It is sad. It is inspirational. It is depressing. It is hopeful. There are so many great songs .. Dive, Tegami, Arifureta~Love Story, Everything (It’s You), Namo Naki Uta, Seesaw Game, Derumo … the list just goes on and on. Even thinking about it makes me regret not having the album with me right now so that I can play it.

Everything (It’s You)

Now, I am, by no means, a great songwriter.. or a good songwriter even. Some of the things I write sounds half-decent, some downright appalling. But every once in a while you will hit it just right — you find just the right words to say, just the right melody, just the right vibe. It’s rare but it happens.

But that’s the thing … they keyword is rare. Producing a good song with just the right ingredients while trying to sound uniquely you is hard. Imagine trying to produce a whole album that way.

Hence, the more sombre and somewhat experimental albums that followed Shinkai were … swallowable. Although I was increasingly worried about my lack of understanding of what the band was trying to say, I “get” it. I am tremendously grateful and appreciative of the fact that Mr Children managed to produce a gem that is Shinkai. I understand, hey, this is a feat that one may not be able to repeat – ever. It’s not that they are bad, it’s just that on the whole, the albums are not as good as Shinkai. Like I said, I “get” it. I mean how can you not love someone who wrote

“It’s last minute but I give it one more try. But, I surrender..the thick thunder clouds are gathering in my heart”?

If I don’t get the melody, the lyrics would have done me in anyway.

After Shinkai they’ve written some really good songs like Owari Naki Tabi, Surrender, Birdcage… to name a few. But none of the follow-up albums have the tenacity, the energy and complexity that Shinkai has.

In fact, Mr Children sounded mellow and quieter than ever with It’s A Wonderful World. Like all their previous work, the consistently high production quality is a given. But the mood and the overall collection of songs in the album seems to confirm my suspicion… Mr Children has grown too mature and too sophisticated for my simple tastes. A lot like how Alanis Morissette grew up from being an angry, brutally honest, sensitive young woman in Jagged Little Pill to this well behaved, always agreeable, somewhat ordinary person in This So-Called Chaos. Somewhere in the process, she lost her shine. Or I lost the shine. Whatever. You know what I mean. The reviewer at j-fan.com couldn’t have said it any better:

“Although there are some good songs on this album (It’s a Wonderful World), as you can see if you read the review, the album doesn’t warrant anything more than lukewarm feelings from this reviewer. It wasn’t very good on the first listen, and it didn’t get any better over time. The album’s refusal to get better upon subsequent listens is annoying. Listening to the album seven or eight times before reviewing it was not very much fun.”

So now do you understand why I listened to Shifuku no Oto with an huge amount of trepidation and anxiety? I know I know … songs are personal, they reflect where you are at right now, they won’t necessarily be relevant to you bla..bla..bla.. But remember, I had a lot of hope of this band.

Moving on with the review.

Shifuku no Oto is a collection of songs written by Sakurai around the time he discovered that he had a serious illness that required surgery (Ijah’s note: some websites described it as ‘brain tumor’, some says it’s a blood clot. Due to my inability to speak or read Japanese, I can’t say which is which. Suffice to know that it was life-threatening and the band’s activities kinda got frozen in ice to allow Sakurai time to recuperate). Understandably, such experience would move someone greatly – as a person and as an artiste.

Prior to getting the full album, I have listened to two of the singles namely “Hero” and “Any” so I’m not exactly devouring the album blind. Both songs are distinctly different.

Any’s intro reminds me a little bit of Tomorrow Never Knows. It fooled me into thinking this is a slow, soft-spoken song but the tempo picks up in the middle. A lot of people like this song, but I didn’t quite like the big sound arrangement .. I thought there were just too many sounds to listen to at the same time.

Now, Hero on other hand, is excites me from the word go. And why wouldn’t it? The cool piano and guitar intro aside, its opening lyrics were:

“Supposing that the world could be saved by one person giving their life in exchange,
I would be the man who waits until someone else has volunteered”

How can you NOT like that? You see, this is exactly what I like about Mr Children. They are so good with words.

Shifuku no Oto opens with Iwasete Mitee Mon Da. It started like a marching band song and the first time I listened to this song, I didn’t like it. Specifically I didn’t like the way Sakurai sings. He sounded harsh and… rude. I found out later the song opens with the line “Even if you are sick of me, it doesn’t bother me at all”. Learning what the lyrics mean made a lot of difference. Bear with me here. I am going keep on repeating again and againhow good their lyrics are.

Now, I am not trying to run this song down but when I listened to the second song Paddle, I wondered why they didn’t open the album with this one instead. It opens with a simple guitar riff which I liked immediately. Next thing I know I was tabbing the song in my head (something that I am really not good at, I discovered). It’s a bright, cheery song that would sound incredible in a ‘live’ set. I can imagine the crowd yelling out “It’s OK” when Sakurai sings that part.

The third song, Tenohira, has a great melody and is one of my favourite tracks in the album. This is a great, guitar-driven, mid-tempo rock song but it’s probably something that you can sing only in Japanese. You see, my theory is, the reason why some Japanese songs sounds so .. unusual.. is because of the language. Tenohira is one of those. Very unusual, very japanese.

I was 3 songs into the album and not one of them has a common link. This could be a very difficult album to understand, or a very enjoyable one. But when you like the second song better than the first one, and the third one better than the second one, you know you are in for one, big, happy problem.

Now I have to mention Track No 7 & 8 at the same time because the ending of song no 7 kinda flows into no 8, much like how Dive’s ending became the beginning of Tegami from Shinkai. Chi No Kuda (Track 7) starts with a haunting piano solo. I use the word haunting liberally here because that’s what it’s like – like something you would play at a funeral. The song is not so much sad as it is introspective. It’s would be a great song to accompany a slow motion flashback of an important event in your life.

You’d think the mood would transcend into Karakaze no Kaeri Michi. But Karakaze no Kaeri Michi is nothing like Chi No Kuda. Sakurai sings this obe with an almost reckless abandon. The song lines ended abruptly, which was peculiar, giving the impression that the protagonist doesn’t care about what’s happening to him and around him. I found out later that the title is translated as “The Way Home in the Dry Wind”. After reading the lyrics I think what Sakurai meant to say is whatever happens, happens.

When it was previously released as a B-side to Hero a lot of people found it unremarkable. Most of them only remember about the abrupt way of singing. But I think comparing it to Hero is doing the song injustice. Putting it side by side with Chi No Kuda gave the song character and a melancholy feel. This is, perhaps, my favourite track in the whole album.

Yes yes, by now you would have guessed how the rest of the review would go. And yes, Shifuku no Oto is a very good album. It’s got personality. It’s got meat. Not one song is alike and each one seems to go off in a unique direction of its own. Listening to this album gives you an understanding of how diverse and versatile Mr Children is.

Sakurai said they did not have a special vision when making this album. He explained that from the beginning, he had the notion of wanting to write each song differently, from the melody to the words, and for each song to convey a particular image or experience in life.

In an interview (translated by Yuji at centigrade-j), Sakurai said,

“Up until now we had always tried to look a certain way but this time we were all acting a lot more natural. I don’t know what the others think but it made me think we’ve become a band that pretty much ignores things like name value, charisma and genre boundaries. We’re just a group that enjoys making music. I guess before now we had set our own rules but looking at our most recent TV appearances it seems like we’re even more free than before. In any case, looking at all of this, the word “shifuku” came to mind… Instead of reaching out for some kind of sweeping scale, we kept it close to home. We made it “our music”. The result is a very solid album – an album that really shows you the framework of Mr. Children.”

So, if you have NEVER EVER listened to Mr Children and would like to start now, this album would be a good place to begin. If you are not a fan after this, well, you probably never will be.

Who would’ve thought they could top Shinkai and came up with this?

Just absolutely amazing.

I give it a 9 out of 10. They would have gotten the full marks if they had opened with Paddle…and that’s probably my only complaint.

If you only have RM150 to spend on one thing, get this album.

Shifuku no Oto is currently not available in the country. There are several websites that stocks the album but cd-now has the lowest price. The CD will arrive in about a week, give or take a couple of days.

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