Of all the acts to emerge during the recent city pop revival, when the funk-inflected AOR of early-1980s Japan seemed to be coming back in vogue, Suchmos has been by far the most successful. Last year saw the sextet graduate to playing arenas and providing NHK’s theme song for the FIFA World Cup — albeit one that even their most ardent fans struggled to support.
It’s been an impressive ascent, but at some point Suchmos was going to have to reconcile its beach-party vibes with the requirements of playing to main-stage festival crowds. Having decided that becoming the next Maroon 5 wasn’t such a great look, the group opts instead for classic-rock authenticity on “The Anymal.”
Opening track “Water” starts with just the sound of a piano and metronome, but by the time it finishes nearly seven minutes later — after cycling through Beatles psychedelica, Muscle Shoals rhythm and blues and countless key changes, without ever alighting on a memorable tune — it’s clear that this won’t be some back-to-basics affair.
The album has been billed as “Timeless Japanese Blues,” and it’s certainly out of step with recent musical trends, boasting a rich, warm production sound that’s enjoyable even when the music isn’t. If the band started out as city pop (and that’s a big “if”), now it’s edging closer to the music of the previous decade, when Japanese rockers drew heavily on Americana.
On “The Anymal,” you get the YouTube-surfing equivalent. Speaking to The Japan Times at the end of 2017, vocalist Yosuke “Yonce” Kasai cited John Mayer’s 2012 Neil Young knock-off “Born and Raised” as an inspiration for the new material. There are lyrical references to Elvis and living “like a rolling stone,” while “Water” seems to exist purely so they can shoehorn the words “muddy waters” into a song.
Yonce delivers his vocals with a gusto that the group’s earlier material only hinted at, but they’re often filtered through effects that leave them sounding thin and self- conscious. During the nearly 12-minute “Indigo Blues” — the album’s centerpiece and nadir — he seems to be wailing into the receiver of a rotary phone, as the band teases a Led Zeppelin-sized eruption that never comes.
One of the recurrent problems during “The Anymal” is that Suchmos’ sense of groove is far stronger than its feel for tension and release. The most effective tracks are the ones built around layering and repetition, as on dub-funk standout “Roll Call” and acid-jazz singalong “Why,” a song whose very functionality comes as a relief.
When the group aims for grander drama, it misses the mark. Lead track “In The Zoo,” with its nihilistic “we’re just animals” refrain, is a would-be psych-rock epic that takes eight minutes to go nowhere. On “Hit Me, Thunder,” Yonce seems to be trying to channel Joe Cocker, but the music never rises above the turgid plod of a bar band at closing time.
While artists in the Spotify era routinely pad their releases with extra tracks in order to rack up streams, the album suffers from the kind of bloat that prevailed when CDs were the default format. Its 12 songs are stretched over a 74-minute runtime, and have a habit of lurching back to life, zombie-like, just when you think they’re finally done.
“The Anymal” is the sound of a band convinced it can do no wrong, being given enough space and studio time to prove otherwise. Such hubris is also a hallmark of many classic rock albums, of course. It’s just probably not what Suchmos had in mind.