Whatever else you might say about idol trio Perfume’s new album, “JPN” is a title fraught with possible meanings. Is it a postquake rallying cry? A doomed attempt to reach out to overseas audiences following the use of “Polyrhythm” in Pixar’s pointless “Cars 2″ flick? A kick aimed at the waves of Korean idol groups who have recently stolen Perfume’s electropop crown?
Taken in context with producer/songwriter Yasutaka Nakata’s other work in 2011, “JPN” is without doubt unwittingly symbolic of the malaise afflicting mainstream Japanese pop. Where Nakata’s own band capsule’s “World of Fantasy” was a frequently ridiculous but undeniably energetic riot of hedonistic dance beats, and his work with Harajuku style-icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was a paint splatter of bubblegum-pop absurdity, Perfume, with no subcultural niche from which to draw energy, are left to flounder in no-man’s land, little more than a dumping ground for used advertising jingles.
It’s probably unfair to pick on “Kasukana Kaori,” because it really is the worst thing in Perfume’s back catalog, with its wishy-washy balladry recalling the worst elements of dreary, bloated late-1990s J-pop, but problems remain even among the more uptempo tracks. “Nee” and “Glitter” bounce along nicely enough, but they are melodically insubstantial and, like the four new tracks on “JPN,” feel like something Nakata could make in his sleep. Listen to it back to back with Girls’ Generation’s self-titled album and it’s clear which album is the more melodically dense.
There are moments where “JPN” hints at the possibility of greater things. Despite their voices being auto-tuned to near oblivion, Perfume have an instantly recognizable sound in a way that few pop groups do, be they Japanese, Korean or whatever. The chorus of “Voice,” and in particular the excellent “Laser Beam” (despite Nakata doing his best to ruin it with this overly fussy album mix), are great examples of classic Japanese pop, taking the sounds of 1970s kayōkyoku and 1980s technopop and updating them in a way that manages to be at once nostalgic and defiantly modern.
Elsewhere, “Natural ni Koishite” breaks the mold with its jerky electro-funk arrangement, and “575″ is a curiously mellow take on the 1990s ballad/rap hybrid J-pop formula. Too often, however, as on the otherwise unremarkable closing number “Spice,” the pressures of creating pop music whose primary function is selling midrange fashion brands and various alcopops means that listeners must peel further and further beneath the surface to discover the invention and creativity that is in full bloom in Nakata’s other work.