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Make way for the gloom

by Steve McClure

Mr. Hyde is waiting to be interviewed in the chicly decrepit confines of Casa del Japon, a Western-style house in Azabu that was the residence of China’s ambassador to Japan before World War II and is now a bar and restaurant.

He is sitting on a somewhat ratty sofa in a room that looks like a set for “The Addams Family”: garish but faded wallpaper, antique light fixtures and windows that have been painted black.

Unlike the swarthy sensualist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, this Mr. Hyde is a pale, diminutive chap with dyed-blonde hair — decidedly nonthreatening. He is, in fact, the lead singer of mega-popular rock band L’Arc-en-Ciel and has recently released a solo album titled “Roentgen.”

In contrast to L’Arc-en-Ciel’s in-your-face brand of rock ‘n’ roll, Hyde’s solo effort (his first) is a collection of quiet, ruminative songs in which his plaintive, understated vocals are set against lush orchestral backings. It’s a little pretentious and overwrought at times, but you have to give Hyde credit for going out on a limb stylistically. And, gradually, it impresses the listener as a mature, assured song cycle that deals with the classic theme of the transient nature of love and existence itself.

“Roentgen” was recorded in London with British musicians, and several of the songs on the domestic release are in English. On the Asian version, meanwhile, all of the songs are in English — mainly to get around South Korea’s continued ban on Japanese-language vocals, as well as to make it an easier sell in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, where English is widely understood. But Hyde has his own reasons for wanting to sing in another language.

“In my private life I listen to a lot of music in English, so I prefer listening to my own songs in English,” he explains. “So you might say that I was singing for myself.”

Hyde cites Depeche Mode and David Sylvian as key influences. Hyde’s penchant for melodrama recalls Depeche Mode’s angst-ridden anthems, though in a much more understated way, while his breathily romantic vocal style obviously owes a large debt to Sylvian. The warm acoustic feel and haunting melodies that prevail on “Roentgen” are also reminiscent of the former Japan vocalist’s solo work.

Hyde is one of those rare rock stars who actually think before answering a question. There’s an appreciable pause before he explains why the album is titled “Roentgen” (which is the term used for X-rays in Japan — Dr. Roentgen being the 19th-century German doctor who discovered them).

“From the beginning, I wanted an album title that represented the inner workings of people,” he explains. “You might say a spiritual world. And I wanted an album jacket with a skull on it. And if I was going to use a skull, my own skull was the most appealing.”

With that idea in mind, Hyde visited a hospital and managed to convince the staff to X-ray his head. (One can just imagine. Nurse Watanabe: “Dr. Sato, we’ve got that Hyde in here wanting a cranial X-ray . . .” Dr. Sato: “What, a rock star who wants his head examined? OK, tell him to get in line with all the others.” Ahem . . .)

“After the picture was taken, when I was working on the design, I was asked what I wanted the album title to be,” Hyde continues. “I thought . . . ‘Why not “Roentgen”?’ It was something that recalled the inner workings of a person.”

Judging from the gloomy mood of many of the songs on “Roentgen,” Hyde’s inner nature must be rather dark and brooding.

“I like gloomy music to begin with,” he says. “And if there’s only gloomy music, it can be sort of heavy when you listen to it, so I did make an effort to brighten [the album] up a little.”

To give you an idea of just how gloomy poor old Hyde is, check out these lyrics from the song “The Cape of Storms”: “A moment of pleasure/You are fulfilled/But every dream has its time/To die.”

Speaking of cheerful topics like death and dying, the three singles taken from “Roentgen” come in coffin-shaped jewel boxes.

“I don’t really know why I like such things,” Hyde says. “It’s strange. . . . I like the idea of a spiritual world, and the decorations and designs created by people who believe in them.” Although he was quick to note that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural himself.

All right, so the sense of morbid decadence Hyde tried to convey on “Roentgen” is just a pose. I even suspect — perish the thought — that Hyde is not in fact his real name! Nonetheless, the album is an intriguing look into the inner workings of this romantic-minded materialist’s soul. Dr. Jekyll would be well-pleased by his faux alter-ego’s progress . . .