Just eleven months after the release of “Quiet Life” in the UK [it was released in 1979 in Germany and Benelux countries] came the second classic album in a row for Japan. This one was an album I recall seeing in the import bins of 1980. I recall thinking at the time, that the cover featured a female model, not having looked very closely at it! Japan were not on my radar yet, until I heard Virgin’s “Cash Cows” a few months later. My first Japan purchase would happen in 1982, with the cheaper, hacked together US “Japan” album on Virgin/Epic. But within weeks of buying that, the impulse of obtaining “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” and “Tin Drum” separately, in their preferred formats, would manifest.
With this album, Japan released their second classic in a row. If I had to be pressed, this remains my favorite Japan album and possibly one of ten I’d want at that proverbial desert island. It’s a slightly less coherent album than the ones the bookended it, but in terms of sound and vibe, this is the one that works the best for me, and I hold the other two albums in the highest esteem; I just like this one better. Like “Quiet Life,” there are vestiges of the previous album on it. “Nightporter,” like “The Tenant,” was this album’s dark cinema allusion set to crystalline Erik Satie pastiche. Unlike “Quiet Life,” this album telegraphed the sound of “Tin Drum” with at least two tracks; “Swing” and “Taking Islands In Africa.”
But at the end of the day, it’s the title track that I will always come back to. The sublime poise of the song encapsulates why I love this album as much as I do. While “Quiet Life” is a very coherent, if sombre, album that is perhaps the product of a depressed mind, that very fact holds the album somewhat at arm’s length from me. I can admire it but not quite love it. “Gentlemen Take Polaroids,” on the other hand, captures an optimism and dare I say lust for life while still being accompanied by ornate and accomplished musical accompaniment. The lyric “breathe life into me, spin me ’round” may reference the final track on the preceding year’s Roxy Music opus, but here, thanks to the tight musicianship of the band, manages to smoke Roxy at their own game.
The rhythmic attack of Steve Jansen is, by this album, a force to be reckoned with with off meter jazz touches predominating his stellar playing. Over the years, just like how I listen to early Simple Minds and hear only Derek Forbes’ bass, I now can listen to this and mentally isolate the drum track. And I am astonished. That’s Jansen’s more than capably matched by the lurch and pull of Mick Karn’s fretless bass suggests a synergy at work, as the rhythmic complexity of this music, belies its luminous beauty. Usually music this accomplished may be spellbinding but not beautiful. And really, is there anything more beautiful than the heart-wrenching coda to “Gentleman Take Polaroids?” It could last for another seven minutes in my world.
Another favorite immediately follows the title cut and “Swing” is a feast for fans of jazz, with some of the most thrilling drum patterns I’ve heard outside of Brian McGee era Simple Minds albums left to run riot with the song. The irregular, lurching rhythmic impetus of this song is a feast of pushing the song forward on off-beats. The drum patterns presage where the band was going with their next opus, “Tin Drum” but I can’t get ahead of myself. “Swing” manages to affect a decadent elegance that is almost unparalleled for this band. It is smooth and assured, yet almost entirely left field if dissected bar by bar. Karn’s staccato sax interjections on beat function more as rhythm than melody here. Sylvian’s vocals are pitch perfect as the sound of seduction personified as the song invites us to “relax… and swing.”
The ambient masterpiece “Burning Bridges” is as much as anything, a poster child for the advent of the compact disc. I can recall the delicate, slow buildup of this song literally fighting the surface noise of the original album I had of this, back in the day. That was a shame since the slow unfolding of the tune should not have to fight the format for our attention. Every time I hear the song’s intro, I mentally expect the start of Gary Numan’s “She’s Got Claws” to begin at a certain point, but I digress. It looks like I’ve run out of lunch hour and I am capable of waxing eloquent on this album for a little bit longer.
Next: …Methods of Dance