Cornelius Mellow Waves

[Rostrum; 2017]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: Shibuya-kei, electro-acoustic, chamber pop, math rock
Others: Air, Jim O’Rourke, Haruomi Hosono, The Sea & Cake, Julia Holter, Thundercat

So, the world is lucky enough to have a new Cornelius album, and it is plush af. It’s also overflowing with ear-perking, fancy-tickling intrigue. Please do enjoy the fruits of Keigo Oyamada’s labor. Don’t call it a comeback, or a waftback, or a return to form or a formless return. But you wouldn’t ever do that, you beautiful, discerning aesthete, you! You’re gonna leave plenty of room for these waves to lap your outstretched toes and perhaps be a little bit better for it.

Is Mellow Waves Fantasma-level good? Nope. Few albums are. But it is a welcome return nonetheless. All through the 1980s, Japan’s avant-garde took jazz fusion and proggy approaches to pop composition and redeemed those genre’s typically grandiloquent tendencies with a rare and winning restraint. Cornelius is a natural extension of this multi-disciplinary yet signature practice, and his densely thicketed shibuya-kei holds up neatly against the temporary contextualizations of trend. Fantasma, like The Avalanche’s Since I Left You three years later, married eclecticism and bliss-out propulsion in ambitious and indelible ways. Neither album has a misstep and both feature an endless series of delightful sound-trinkets nestled in a fetching, fortified advent calendar. The only downside is the massive sugar crash that can follow. But their judicious deployment of stirring emotion calls us back.

As appropriately soothing as these 10 new tracks are, there is that same curiously playful charm to keep the intrigue going. Despite not quite being the bevy of surprises that his masterwork was, the new album expands on the chiming riverside chamber math (especially in the knotty album highlight, “Mellow Yellow Feel”) that characterized its underrated follow-up (2001’s Point). Before Lush singer Miki Berenyi ushers in the wistful yet lazing ballad “The Spell of Vanishing Loveliness,” the maestro cuts a mini-cluster of synth toots running into two quick conductor-baton-tap high trills. It suggests a space in the ensuing rests (heralded by the same trills) that is less solemn than flatly uncertain. The subdued nature of this album is refreshingly down to earth for 2017, with its gentle distemper always creating fetching folds in the bedsheet. Its pop soul meandering is as much about embracing obstacles in the path to grace as it is gracefully skirting obstacles only to get somewhere unsettled. Through this, he allies himself with a world-weary listener’s fickle temperament.

For those who loved the more raucous material, there is some brief shredding on “Sometime/Someplace,” but this is a record that decidedly puts melancholy before rock & roll fun. But it’s in no way a downer. It feels like a mature statement from a seasoned craftsman that belies lulling adult-contempo moods without any of the tedium. It isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it is an impeccably ravishing listen with no blunder (well, maybe that lady-scape on the cover is a bit unsettling). The Fennesz-esque interlude “Surfing on Mind Wave Pt. 2” (sequel to a Ghost in the Shell: Arise track) or the woozy loping contraption that is “Helix/Spiral” may’ve seemed out of place were it not for Oyamada’s expertly seamless sequencing. His ear is so acute that, even after many plays, one can easily forget just how surprisingly off this cerebral easy-listening LP can be. Mellow Waves might be a strange bedfellow for the seminal albums of the year so far, but it’s a nonetheless unassumingly essential artifact. Rather than make you go running back to Fantasma (or the late 90s in general), it inclines one to be more graciously attentive to the continually expanding oeuvre of one of left-field pop music’s brightest minds.

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