Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A one-of-a-kind album tried to turn ’80s pop on its ear

Illustration for article titled A one-of-a-kind album tried to turn ’80s pop on its ear

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Fushigi: the only album self-produced by Akina Nakamori, one of the biggest Japanese pop stars of the 1980s; an unusual record that fuses midtempo pop with experiments in echoing, plutonic soundscape, as unique and unconventional as the original mix of The Stooges’ Raw Power. Musically, Fushigi is an ’80s pop album par excellence, stacked with busy bass lines and dramatic synths. And yet it doesn’t really sound like anything that came out of the pop mainstream of the time. The vocals are buried far behind the instruments. For most of the album, Nakamori is backed by a band called Eurox, which was joined by a motley crew of session players that included the ubiquitous Filipino smooth jazz sax player Jake Concepcion (the self-proclaimed “King Of Sax”) and, for some reason, Anton Fier, original drummer of The Feelies and The Lounge Lizards. All of them sound like they were recorded in a dark warehouse filled with cut blocks of ice, the kind that got hauled with iron tongs in the days before electric refrigeration.

Nakamori’s voice, a sultry alto, is sometimes reduced to a spectral trail; at other points, she sounds feral, wailing in echoes, like a ghost that got trapped in the music. Whatever the medium, you know you’re getting somewhere when a piece suggests the one thing it can’t actually provide—say, when a picture on a screen gives you a touch or temperature sensation. In that respect, music is really good at creating illusions of space. And no other major-label pop album has ever sounded like Fushigi, at least in spatial terms. After all, what kind of album buries a singer so deep? “Back Door Night,” the nearly six-minute opening track, comes in with the full arsenal of mid-’80s studio production and a lagoon of reverb. Haruo Okano’s bass is pushed way to the front, rolling and rumbling over Anri Sekine’s layers of keyboards and electric violin. (It’s a shame Eurox, a crack studio band, never went much of anywhere with its own music; it’s best remembered for a couple of anime theme songs.) Nakamori sounds like she’s a room over, occasionally bending her voice into something like a cackle.


On other tracks—like the bubbling, squelchy “Labyrinth,” or “Okibi” (“Blazing Fire”), which features Fier on drums—her voice sounds like it’s coming around the corner of a haunted hallway that exists only in the listener’s head. What she never sounds like is a pop star. Supposedly, the day Fushigi hit stores in the summer of 1986, customers started bringing it back immediately, believing they’d been sold defective copies; it’s that kind of record. It was released in the second week of August, usually the hottest time of year in Japan, which was then still flush with the kind of money that made monolithic Japanese conglomerates a staple of Hollywood action and sci-fi movies. The day after its release was the one year anniversary of the Japan Airlines Flight 123 disaster, the deadliest single-plane crash in history. It killed over 500 passengers, including pop star Kyu Sakamoto, whose 1963 single “Ue O Muite Arukō,” also known as “Sukiyaki,” is the only Japanese song to ever top the Billboard charts, and represents one of the few times that the sensibilities of American and Japanese pop really crossed.

Nakamori was part of a wave of girl idols who took over the Japanese pop charts in the last decade of the economic boom. The most popular among these was Seiko Matsuda, who was born into the old Japanese nobility, but cultivated a girl-next-door image, racking up two dozen consecutive chart-topping singles between 1980 and 1988—a streak that no pop star has ever matched. (Whitney Houston, the American record holder, topped out at seven.) Nakamori averaged about two new albums a year during that time, and all except her debut hit No. 1—even Fushigi, which topped the Japanese charts for three weeks. She was sometimes trumpeted as a more mature and sophisticated alternative to Matsuda, because some of her songs were considered suggestive by the very conservative standards of ’80s Japanese pop, and because her voice made her seem older and womanly. Her record company liked to think of her a successor to Momoe Yamaguchi, the sad-eyed, deep-voiced singer who retired in 1980 at the age of 21, and spent the subsequent decades as the Japanese tabloids’ ideal of a wife and mother.

Nakamori herself was 21 when she released Fushigi, her ninth album; maybe it’s just a pivotal age in a music business founded on marketing stylized girlishness. By 24, she was burned out, retreating after a suicide attempt at the apartment of her ex-fiancée, Masahiko “Matchy” Kondō, a pop star and race car driver who first rose to fame aping Vegas-era Elvis Presley. (Perhaps idols captivate the public imagination because they seem to live in a daytime soap opera.) She would rebound commercially in the early 1990s and score a few more hit singles, and has continued to put out new, largely undistinguished albums (the most recent one came out in December) and to tour. But that would all be in the future; in 1986, Nakamori was a star who had just become the youngest person to win the Grand Prix at the Japan Record Awards, the Japanese equivalent to the Grammys. Fushigi would be her follow-up to D404ME, a record that featured cut-outs of bats on the cover, seemingly signaling the gothic direction she’d take next.

The title of an album can be a frame—or in the case of an album as bewitching as Fushigi, the first word of a spell. Fushigi is often translated as Strange or Mysterious, though Japanese doesn’t have adjectives in the English sense; maybe Strangeness is a better translation, though Wonder is the standard. Unlike her contemporaries, Nakamori didn’t have a consistent look, apart from a preference for nude lipstick. Her style changed regularly, from the fur trim and lace gloves of a rich-girl sophisticate, to the kind of art-fashion get-ups that can only be worn on runways and stages. The cover of Fushigi is one of those studio head shots that were de rigeur for girl idols at the time, except that Nakamori’s face is hidden by folds of dark silk, shaped into a cowl; she looks as authoritative as an ancient statue, with the outline of a henna tattoo on her forehead. Whatever she’d done before, this was supposed to be different and weird. (The image also echoes the cover of her third album, New Akina, in which the same side of her face was hidden in shadow.) When she performed “Back Door Night” on the long-running TV show Yoru No Hit Studio, she appeared in a conical black hat, like a thimble for a witch’s finger.

At once forward-thinking and faithful to the slick songwriting formulas of the era’s romantic pop, Fushigi sometimes brings to mind the kind of double-exposed, aquatic dream-pop that was coming out the U.K. at the time, best exemplified by Scotland’s Cocteau Twins. Its sense of romantic drama is gothic, recalling Siouxsie And The Banshees. Nakamori probably hadn’t heard of either of these bands; the only influence she’d claim was Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog hit “Tubular Bells,” which she and millions of other around the world knew as the theme from The Exorcist. She was working in a business where music was sold on stage-managed personality, with singers as competing protagonists, and her concept for Fushigi was to flip that dynamic, and treat her own voice as a instrumental texture. These were still pop songs about jealousy and heartbreak, but turned on their ear, revealing ice layers of rhythm and sonic color, synth pads, and clean, Nile Rodgers-esque chops of electric guitar bouncing off chirpy electronic beats.

It sounds supernatural and transportive, which is probably what pop is supposed to sound like—as though it were opening a window to a plane constructed in studio space. But instead of the high of that perfect pop moment, Fushigi offers up shimmering, murky textures that were being explored outside of pop, but have only rarely been quoted within it. As far as the canon of the hooky mainstream goes, it’s sui generis. Perhaps it’s pop as crate-digging obsessives dream it; songs like “Teenage Blue” and “Glass No Kokoro” (“Heart Of Glass”) shove bass lines, ornate synth arrangements, and clattering percussion to the front, to the point that they sound like idealized dub versions of themselves, with the ringing echo of Nakamori’s powerful alto voice.

An uncompromising experiment in soundscape that also happens to be pretty damn catchy, Fushigi is an album best played very loud. It’s something to be enveloped in, often disorienting, frequently intoxicating and overwhelming, and perhaps even erotic in its vision of a pop record as a dark, silk-and-velvet mystery space, which the listener enters with the intention of being seduced, never catching more that a distant glimpse of the star at the controls. The selling point of pop albums is access: to songs, to the persona, to the idol figure whose face is on the cover. In its best moments, Fushigi is a labyrinth with the pop idol as both builder and minotaur. And goddamn is it just plain gorgeous in spots.