October 3rd, 2006



Last month, when the Tokyo Times approached me to write a 700 word sidebar for a proposed feature on Cornelius, I didn't immediately jump at the opportunity. In fact, I turned it down. It isn't really polite in Japan to express ambivalence in your press comments, yet ambivalence is what I feel when it comes to Cornelius' music. I drew the paper's attention to A Bathos Ape, the piece I'd written about his disappointing comeback single "Music". Basically, I preferred the video to the song.

And yet, despite finding Cornelius' music often rather arid and academic, I still place him high in the constellation of the world's most interesting music artists, mainly because of his mastery of everything that surrounds music, the empty centre of his work. His website, for instance, is invariably intriguing. The one minute TV advert he's put together for his new album Sensuous ("Sensuous Flagments", as it's billed on YouTube) is fascinating and elegantly conceptual -- like pretty much everything he does. Like Hajime Tachibana of The Plastics, Eye Yamataka of the Boredoms or Konishi from Pizzicato 5, Cornelius is a brilliant editor, a polymath, a conceptualist, a designer. What's exciting about his work is the ideas, the packaging, the marketing, the design.

Since the "bathos" of the first single, there's been another, Breezin', which I have to confess I find as uninspiring, sonically, as "Music". The video is nice enough: an unfeasibly large bubble floats above a children's playground, wobbling before it pops.

Well, a kind little bird sent me the whole of the Sensuous album today, and I must say I like the rest of it better than these two singles. There really isn't a single proper song on the record, though. Correction: there's a lovely synthetic larynx cover of the Dean Martin standard "Sleep Warm", which serves the same function here as "Brazil" did on "Point" -- to remind us that songs exist, and are great, and wouldn't it be nice if Cornelius would actually bother to write some?

But what makes Sensuous compelling is the ideas, and there are lots of those. Here are the notes I scribbled while giving the album a first listen:

Robotic Beach Boys poured over Fagen and Becker
Not so much math rock as math funk-jazz, clipped and controlled
Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly
Lyrics based on a road crossing drill for his son
A 1980s sound, like a pomo Level 42
Nice "unnatural" transitions between the spacily resonant and the bone dry
The toner cart of a printer becomes funk
The record should be called "More Pointillisme"
A scale or an arpeggio becomes a minimalist pattern, with light and colour
There really is sensuality in Cornelius's love of pattern play
Now here's the obligatory fast clipped rock throb ("Gum")
No suprise that The Books have remixed this; they share his hedge-clipping tidiness
Time signatures are impossibly complex, proggy
"Omstart" is foggy-folky, pulsing guitar strings, 60s hippy-dippy spiritual
Reminds me slightly of "Silviphobia" (forthcoming O.LAMM masterpiece), but not as interesting structurally
Guest vocalists ahoy!
"Like a Rolling Stone" should be called "Like Music for Airports" -- it is "Music for Airports"... but done better, with hindsight.

Sensuous is a touching, humane record (we sense Keigo's love for his son Milo in the traffic crossing drill song or "Sleep Warm"), and the checkered math-paper exactitude of its slightly-too-tight-assed funk is more than compensated by a sense of Beatles-ish awe. There's always something "Day in the Life"-ish about Cornelius's music and surrounding concepts, as if a scale, a single note on the piano, or a chord transition could blow our minds, or as if ultimate wisdom were contained in the sound of an air bell chiming in his studio. I get an impression of great freedom glimpsed through a tight grid (which is, it seems to me, a quintessentially Japanese idea), a sense of a window being opened. I don't know if Keigo has ever taken acid, but when I listen to his music I feel like I have. The world is melting into a tidy billion bubbles, pixels, points, or "flagments". The music feels good, man, if you open your mind to the emptiness at its centre. He'd like to turn you on.