Among my many musical preferences that set me apart from my friends… one of those only I seem to care about are a song’s lyrics!
Every now and then I’ll come across a song that I adore musically, but that I only listen to a handful of times because of something I didn’t really enjoy with the lyrics: take… well, a good chunk of mainstream Western pop—If I named artists, I would be here all day-!
Even my most-loved artists have some songs I’ve liked less because of their lyrics: for example, David Bowie’s Atomica or Born in a UFO, which I really enjoy musically, but that I think are kinda dumb lyrically… and not in a fun way, just a more “this could’ve been more coherent for sure” way (｀・ω・´)
So… what do I think are “good” lyrics?
Well—It’s honestly hard for me to be objective about this-! But as a start, I do love when simple ideas and emotions can be conveyed in unusual-but-effective ways…
As an example, let’s take a quick look at a pretty-famous city pop record!
“Summer is fading…”
I love this song, a lot of people inside and outside the country love this song—maybe you will too, it’s a great pop record-!
I’ve always interpreted this song as an ode of sorts to someone the narrator grew infatuated with during a brief vacation—But this being the 80s, keeping in contact with this person is… welp, kind of a problem.
If this song had a mock nutritional label, I’d probably give it like 80% bliss, 20% heartbreak—the narrator knows that their only real option is to treasure the memories they’ve already spent, so that’s exactly what they choose, even if they long to relive those days…
Anri’s writing captures this blend really well, but with a twist: Like with a good portion of Japanese media, the lyrics have this running theme with the seasons, their emotions, and how they relate to the moment-!
Right in the first line, we have a mention of the autumn sea (秋の海), with the next line already referencing the passing of summer!
The chorus sections alternate between the seasons and emotions too, with summer reflecting this blissful nostalgia, autumn an empty longing, and winter a possible glimpse of hope—also joined by “next summer” towards the end of the track-!
“I’ll come here again,” sings Anri, and the fact the song ends with that chorus fading out gives the story a cyclical feeling…
I personally like to believe that, come next summer, the narrator gets at least a chance to relive those memories they hold so dear, but their hopeful tone might be something clouded by the moment—
If you wanna take it into conspiracy theory levels, maybe the person they’re signing about never loved them in the first place, or something sinister’s happened—but this is really pulling conclusions out of nothing… ʅ（◞‿◟）ʃ
What we actually have though is just a nice pop song: creative lyrics, a visually-powerful theme in the seasons, amazing, emotional vocals from Anri, and rich instrumentation that holds everything together—For a bonus track on her Timely!! album, it’s really lovely how this song is not only now seen as one of city pop’s best, but also, as its parent album would suggest, still timely! In everything from sound to performance to lyrics…
Please don’t let my skimmed summary distract from the song—I promise you, a listen is well worth it!
But now that I’ve told you some of what I like in a song…
“A half-burnt-out dream…”
So I’ll probably sound like some grumpy old imperialist saying this—but modern chart-toppers really make me wonder how pop music’s just… fallen so far lyrically. d(￣ ￣)
I originally planned to include here lyrics of the current top 3 Billboard Hot 100 songs and just compare them to their equivalents in 1983, both in Japan and outside, but… well the first song is way too graphic for me to put here and the second is just repetitive!
Heh—I’m definitely biased in a way, but to include those lyrics or mention said songs would be kinda insulting to everything else I recommend, so those duds aside…
Here’s something I guarantee we’ll love a lot more—and features a little-something extra compared to Remember Summer Days that I wanted to talk about-!
The title’s sometimes translated as “My Answer”, other times as just “Reply”, but I think both are similar enough to not make too much difference~
If you’re someone like me who was introduced to Takeuchi through a lot of her more popular songs, then Henshin (返信) might be a bit jarring…
The catchiness of Plastic Love? The swinging vocals of Manhattan Kiss? Even Minna Hitori’s mellow piano?
None of that’s here in Henshin… All we have are her vocals and lyrics, plus Yoshiyuki Sahashi (佐橋佳幸) on this flamenco-esque guitar, kept in tune by nothing more than the backing, reverb-heavy taiko (太鼓), as well as a light string arrangement!
I think it’s one of the most minimalistic songs she’s ever put out—and for its effectiveness in that regard? I already love it~!
There aren’t too many English translations published online, but my favourite one’s this one for our reference—I think it’s the best in terms of capturing the tone of the recording anyways, so any lyrics I reference are taken straight from here, maybe with slight edits~
Just like Remember Summer Days, this song’s lyrics have a nostalgic, romantic tone to them, but in a much more depressive mood…
I’m probably looking too much into it, but the way she sings really-fatalistic lyrics like these below, combined with the heavy drums, makes me feel like I’m hearing somebody who chooses to move on from the past through repression of this sadness.
When everyone is born
It is decided that
They will all soon
Return to this sea
Do you think the taiko might be representing something inside the narrator’s body?
Every now and then, the echo makes me think it’s a heartbeat of some kind, and the heaviness of it all gives a really-dramatic and conflicted tone that Takeuchi’s singing emphasises.
From the very beginning, Henshin begins building up in intensity, especially with the drums, but right at the end of the middle section… all of it abruptly stops.
For me, the final verse, sung without any of the percussion, has that same bittersweet tone that Remember Summer Days faded out with…
You won't be able to read my letter
Yet you've made me write it
I've included my eternal love
So that my answer
Reaches your soul
Are they moving on here…?
Is this even an attempt to move on from their apparent heartbreak, or is it an attempt to cling onto some fading dream?
The grief and reminiscence that followed this feel to me like this song itself is, in some ways, the letter mentioned here in the end—And in that case, their raw emotions so far feel to genuine for me to doubt that…
But whoever they’re writing to, what does it take for an answer to reach a soul?
After Takeuchi’s vocals and the guitar end, a stringed instrument of sorts plays a final, rising tone—something much more resolved than a chorus fadeout, but in the context of that last verse, also very unresolved…
Two weeks ago I talked about another Takeuchi song—Minna Hitori—which ended with a sudden jump into English for this thank-you verse to the singer’s best friends ((o(^∇^)o))
Both songs have a really-resolved ending musically, but thematically, this one kind of leaves us hanging…
And that’s the magic of this song, isn’t it?
What happens to the song’s narrator? What about the person they’re talking to? What state is that person in?
All the drama of Henshin is released after that final verse, freed like a bluebird, but that lingering uncertainty, for me, adds to that internally-conflicted tone the whole song’s presented with so far…
It’s that kind of simplicity I love—The writing is creative, beautiful, but understandable, the music is minimalistic but fitting, and the best part?
You don’t need to care about any of this!
You can enjoy all of Henshin’s dramatic edge, melancholic vocals, and flowing guitar even without thinking about its meaning or composition~!
They’re perfectly-fitting in that nothing takes us out of the experience, and beautifully-fluid in that nothing makes us want to get out of the experience… unlike the uselessly-vulgar and predictable lyrics of today’s pop hits. （；＿；）
“Even today’s evening calm will be beautiful…”
Heehee~ Maybe I’m being too harsh on mainstream Western pop, I definitely have my biases in some places…
But it’s hard for me to dismiss the feeling that, at some point over the last few decades, the industry’s just become oversaturated with conventionally-attractive people who are only really composing for the money and fame…
Can’t say us in the East aren’t guilty of that—the idol industry can be genuinely disgusting at a lot of times—but Henshin? For a song released in 2006, it really holds up well compared to the many J-pop hits of the 80s that I love, and that’s one of many things I’ve always admired Mariya Takeuchi for: you can 100% count on her to always put the art in music!
As a closing note, I haven’t actually seen the movie Henshin was written for, Deguchi no naiumi (出口のない海), but the wartime premise does sound really interesting—This tie-in definitely explains all the song’s references to the sea and ocean at least~
I originally wanted to talk about another song after Henshin, but heh—looks like I’ve been rambling much longer than I thought~
But, sometime in the future, I’d love to show you something with that same, dramatic flair as this song, but in a much more different style and era…
A certain French song old enough to have influenced a teenaged David Bowie- ψ(｀∇´)ψ
Hopefully I can see you again for when that comes, and for the rest of our week in general, so until then, all the love to ‘ya~!