It's difficult to drop the needle on track one of Ryuichi Sakamoto's new album and not feel a wave of nostalgia. The Japanese legend's recent throat cancer scare came at a time when too many of our heroes are leaving us. To hear his 65-year-old fingers slide across the keyboard again is a privilege we can't take for granted.
Then, as if to shock us out of our sentimentality, Sakamoto drowns out his plaintive piano solo with a buzz of electronic noise. We have been given notice, just one minute into the disc: This will not be an easy listen.
Yet, it's not a difficult one either. Sakamoto has delivered another in a long line of innovative, finely crafted recordings. It is both challenging and moving. Take the rainy-day piano on "ubi," which by itself would be a highlight on any album. Instead, Sakamoto adds a submarine-like ping and subtle, high-pitched drones. The result is precisely what he described in a pre-launch announcement: An exploration of "the blurred lines of life and artificiality/noise and music."
That's followed by "fullmoon," which begins with a spoken-word recording from the Bernardo Bertolucci film The Sheltering Sky (a project that earned Sakamoto a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score): "We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really … How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless."
Sakamoto is not the first to use this sample. (The God Machine used it, to great effect, on their 1993 epic Scenes from the Second Storey.) Coming so soon after his recovery, though, and given his own connection to the film, it feels personal, almost uncomfortably so.
Long-time friend and collaborator David Sylvian delivers a poetry reading on "LIFE, LIFE." It is Arseny Tarkovsky's And this I dreamt, and this I dream: "No need for a date: I was, I am, and I will be…" So ends any doubt about whether or not Sakamoto is mindful of his mortality.
async is a luxurious, picturesque recording. It showcases that Sakamoto's unique ability to create genuine beauty with a varied — at times abrasive — palette.
Perhaps though, the greatest compliment due Sakamoto is that he remains a radical after all these years. For all the red-carpet accolades he earned mid-career, he never stopped cutting edges. async is the work of an authentically great artist that may well be entering a rich new phase of his 42-year career. (Milan)