Japan took tremendous creative strides by the time of their third album in 1980. It bore almost no resemblance to the children who had churned out the first two albums, as it is a fully adult album that takes all of its inspiration from the work of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music instead of The New York Dolls, funk, or any disco …save for the euromotorik of Giorgio Moroder on the amazing title track. If anything, it seems as if they have made the move from being a third rate Dolls to being a first rate Roxy. The transformation must have been jaw-dropping as it happened in realtime.
I came to the game late, in 1980 after the release of their fourth album, and then worked my way back to this in 1982, but even then, one could tell that this was a sombre, cohesive work of art that if derivative of Roxy Music, at least it can be said that they should be considered peers of that seminal band. Not that they didn’t have help from some key players in the Roxy camp. The production by John Punter [prod. – “Country Life,” “These Foolish Things”] and the glorious string arrangements by Ann O’Dell [strings – “Another Time, Another Place,” “Let’s Stick Together,” “In Your Mind”] show that they knew exactly what they were aiming for.
It’s all well and good to poach Roxy’s support crew, but without the songs, you would be wasting one’s time and money. The caliber of songwriting on display here suggests unparalleled artistic breakthroughs. Every song is superb. The album lead off with the audacious more Moroder-than-Mororder title track that puts the single they had recorded the year earlier actually with Moroder [“Life In Tokyo”] very much in the shade. The taut, clipped, and highly compressed rhythm section recalls the single version of Roxy’s “Angel Eyes” shot through with Moroder’s sequencers, over which Barbieri’s spectral lead synths carry the exquisite chord sequence.
All of this might have fallen on its face had not frontman David Sylvian not undergone a radical metamorphosis and shed his glam-punk skin for a perfection of the studied languor that Ferry had always aimed for. His equally affected, yet much more attractive vocal delivery was matched by a huge uptick in the quality of his lyric output as well. A few pointers remain to the old boy [“A summerhouse in Texas, Searching for Siberia, Pioneering underground.”] even as the new man has replaced the callow poseur. By this point, Sylvian was a master poseur. He had made the transition from student to master and was in the process of influencing a new generation of acolytes himself [see: Nick Rhodes].
The album, apart from the uptempo title track or “Fall In Love With Me,” is a studied example of perfect, sombre, late night [almost jazzy] listening as typified by the smoky sax of Mick Karn wafting over the rhythm boxes and Satie-esque piano of the French language “Despair.” The poise, elegance, and accomplishment is dramatic when one considers exactly where the band were 18 months earlier.
Mick Karn’s fretless bass is no longer waiting for the rest of the band to catch up to his level of sophistication, as it was for much of “Obscure Alternatives.” The entire album seems to have been spun whole cloth from the DNA contained in the previous album’s track “The Tenant.” The cover of The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” was, until Icehouse made it theirs in 1995, the definitive cover version, besting the Bryan Ferry attempt on his “Taxi” album by a fair margin, in my book.
The magnificent Ann O’Dell string arrangements give the closing track, “The Other Side Of Love” every inch of its gravitas as being fully earned. It’s flabbergasting to think that this was the same band as on albums one and two. The poise and bearing of “Quiet Life” marks it as a prime harbinger of the nascent New Romantic movement, which, in all candor, amounted to a largely insubstantial emulation of the subdued, world-weary angst that this album carried on its shoulders in spades. Japan achieved this with musicianship that had become world-class seemingly overnight, unlike most of the bands who had followed in their footsteps… such as Duran Duran.
Next: …Perfection amplified