When it comes to artistic contribution and innovation, Shugo Tokumaru remains the most important member of Japan’s indie music scene. Yet Tokumaru also deserves credit for keeping himself in the business of making music within these incredibly turbulent times. Besides moving a good number of albums, he provides tunes for NHK and Mujirushi Ryohin, tours Europe, and sells-out his shows across Japan. We have seen such collapse of the “music industry” (is there still a “poetry industry”?) that no one could possibly muster up epithets of “sell-out” towards the transaction of cash for musical creation. The general feeling now is, oh, how quaint.
The best of Tokumaru’s contemporaries — Petset, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box, MacDonald Duck Eclair, the Usagi-Chang crew — have essentially stopped releasing records, as it takes superhuman obsession and maniacal obduracy to keep churning out new material that is just going to be jettisoned into the hyper-competitive black hole of the modern music marketplace. Even if you don’t need to earn your supper from album sales, you do nominally want listeners and feedback — and even those are not so forthcoming in our era.
Luckily for us, Shugo Tokumaru having a career in music means he has the work responsibility of producing albums on a frequent basis. And in this world of $.99 singles, Tokumaru’s oeuvre is still meant to be enjoyed in its long form. In June, ST released his fourth album Port Entropy. (This is Tokumaru’s first journey into nonsensical but lyrically harmonic English album titles. And I feel like he was playing with the idea of a palindrome but gave up halfway.)
As excited as I was about a new Tokumaru album, I felt a bit apprehensive about actually taking a listen. Tokumaru set the bar very, very high with his 2008 epic Exit — an album on which he pushed his songwriting, production madness, and musical chops into Olympic gold medal territory. He was no longer “gifted and promising” within unambitious indie parameters, but delivering Japan’s best album of the decade without leaving his bedroom. And three is the magic number: he had lined up a trilogy of distinct albums with increasing musical complexity and mainstream appeal. Exit somehow managed to be pleasant enough for casual music fans while having an intricate and complex musical substructure that would launch a dozen ethnomusicology dissertations.
Thankfully, Port Entropy sounds exactly like the Shugo we know and love. I can relay the good news that any and all Tokumaru fans will enjoy this album. The bad news, however, is that I am not sure any human being could possibly dislike it.
For the most part, Port Entropy trades in ST’s trademark clangy, off-kilter Rube Goldberg contraption arrangements for long glides of sweeping, uplifting, and triumphant phrases. After a pleasant opening instrumental, we are greeted with “Tracking Elevator” — an immediate announcement that Tokumaru will be avoiding his previously “precious” lab-coat pop and striving for something that would feel at home in an international documentary about global issues. The chorus sounds like it involves two dozen friends singing in the background, and there are no ironic and self-deprecating twists and turns served up as subversive counterpoint to the primary theme. This is followed by the third track “Linne,” perhaps the most spare of his entire career. He allows a beautiful melody to just be a beautiful melody, framed by minimum piano and musical saw accompaniment. This kind of safe simplicity can be disappointing, yet I found the melody haunting me throughout the day. Tokumaru may have reduced the “wow” factor, but he still is a master manipulator of music’s fundamental emotional resonance.
A bit later on, “Rum Hee” — which had its own EP release last year — makes an appearance on the album and ends up as the anchor. This song is basically the new Shugo archetype: earnest and epic. And Tokumaru is apparently fine with flagrant violations of his previous “no guitar strum” rule. “Lahaha” follows the exact same pattern with eerily similar results.
So has Tokumaru gone to a completely different songwriting mode? Not exactly. Once you make it to the middle of the album, he returns to his old modus operandi. “Straw” relies on lighting-fast guitar lines and swervy vocal melody directions, while “Drive-thru” brings back his clanky-clank neo-gagaku to sound like something Malkmus and company would have made back during Wowee Zowee if they had been forced to play whatever they found in the studio kitchen. These tracks prove that Tokumaru could have easily sequenced the album to be a mirror of Exit. Their burial in Act Two suggests he wanted to give more attention to the “serious” tracks that come before.
Port Entropy is on the serious side, yes, but this is Shugo, so there are no major missteps. The album is, however, definitely a capitulation in the face of earlier experimental escalation. Unlike “La La Radio” of Exit, Tokumaru doles out no monumental concept songs. Over the course of Port Entropy, he takes few risks, adds few new instruments, sticks to relatively simple chord progressions, and offers only a handful of surprises. The album is ultimately very familiar. It has the pace of Night Piece, the timbres of L.S.T., and the pop appeal of Exit.
This is what makes reviewing the album a challenge: To the normal person, Port Entropy should be a remarkable achievement. 90% of his fans were probably hoping that he would put down the beakers and just make something heart-warming and “real.” He has succeeded in that. Yet the serious dearth of Japanese artists who can straddle the line between experimental passion and pop sensibility has put a lot of pressure on Tokumaru to be everything for everybody. And with his musical skills, we know he can make about anything he wants. So I have made peace with the softer, gentler side of Shugo Tokumaru we hear on Port Entropy, but deep in my heart, I hope that he will start a Zapple-esque side project under a new name that explores the weirder sides of his musical persona. I need sped-up pianica lines in 7/8, stat.
Here samples of Port Entropy at the official special site.