Perfume seem to be in a weird place, creatively speaking. Their first four albums—2008’s Game, 2009’s Triangle, 2012’s JPN, and 2013’s LEVEL3—were brilliant cyber-pop collections, each one building on the achievements of its predecessor. The group consists of three singers, Ayano “Nocchi” ŌmotoYuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino, and Ayaka “A-Chan” Nishiwaki, and with the exception of two remixes appended to the US edition of LEVEL3 and two early singles, every one of their songs since 2003 has been produced by Yasutaka Nakata.

Nakata’s sound has evolved quite a bit over the years. It’s always been relatively easy to tell his work for Perfume from his work for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu from the tracks he creates for his own project, CapsuleJPN, for example, featured wall-to-wall synths and ultra-precise digital production, including tons of finely chopped editing of the girls’ vocals, but melodically, it was highly creative. “Natural ni Koishite” had an almost R&B strut, while “Glitter” and “Toki no Hari” were built around sing-song melodies. Other tracks like “Have a Stroll,” “Fushizen na Girl,” and closing track “Spice” were more mellow and pulsing.

LEVEL3 included some of the group’s most aggressive, dancefloor-oriented music to date, as well as a few pieces of surprising delicacy. As always with Perfume albums, new album mixes of various singles were combined with new tracks. “Spring of Life,” for example, was a chirpy 3:50 electro-pop tune with an infernally catchy chorus as a single. On the album, it was extended to six minutes, like a 12″ from the early 1990s. Another track, “Spending All My Time,” was not only Perfume‘s best single, it was one of the best songs of 2012, a hypnotic track whose vocal melody looped over and over until it was almost like a round, building and building without ever reaching any kind of musical or vocal climax. The dispassionate way in which the women sang the lyrics made it almost trance-inducing. Unfortunately, the album mix dispensed with the subtlety of the single version in favor of a pounding dance beat and an overdose of synths.

Perfume‘s 2016 album, Cosmic Explorer, was where things started to go awry. The album mixes of some tracks (“Tokimeki Nights,” “Star Train”) were not nearly as different from the singles as they’d been in the past, while in other cases (“Flash”) they were radical reworkings that turned decent songs into generic EDM, almost wiping out the vocals in the process. Long stretches of songs here are basically instrumental. On the other hand, there’s a moment during the very long (5:22!) title track, a stomping midtempo song that almost sounds like synthwave, where the electronics that usually boost/process their voices are stripped away and they chant an “ooh-ooh” phrase, flat and almost out of tune. Just the fact that they were allowed to appear naked and human, even if it was just for a few seconds, was a small revelation. Still, the album as a whole was inconsistent, weirdly sequenced, and even though it was shorter than LEVEL3—14 tracks in 58 minutes—it still felt overlong.

Future Pop is the shortest Perfume album to date, at just 12 tracks (one of which is a 54-second intro) in 42 minutes. All three pre-album singles— “Tokyo Girl,” “If You Wanna,” and “Mugen Mirai”—and their respective B-sides “Houseki no Ame,” “Everyday,” and “Fusion” appear in their original mixes, totally unchanged. Granted, some of them are excellent. “Fusion” is practically EBM (not EDM—think Front 242 or Nitzer Ebb), though it’s also pretty much an instrumental; the girls just chant “Yeah! Yeah!” on beat and occasionally whisper the word “fusion.” Sure, it could be a Capsule track, but when it works this well, I don’t care. “If You Wanna” brings back the ultra-warped, chopped-up vocals of JPN, while “Mugen Mirai” is a spacy ballad (with occasional bass drops) that sounds like the theme music to Billions. It’s got one of the band’s best videos in a while, too:

That leaves just five new tracks: the title song, “Tiny Baby,” “Let Me Know,” “Chorairin,” and “Tenku.” Only “Future Pop” appears in the album’s first half; as was the case with “Cosmic Explorer,” it’s the first song after the intro. It starts with acoustic guitar, of all things, about the least futuristic instrument there is. At the 45-second mark, though, the beat comes in and after that it’s…well, not futuristic exactly; it sounds like any number of other Perfume tracks, with a big EDM-ish melody and minimal, heavily filtered singing. Honestly, it’s not a promising start. “If You Wanna” would have been a better first song. “Chorairin” features a beat slow enough for head-nodding rather than dancing, synthesized handclaps, and strange electronic trills that sound like ringtones, while the vocals are a chant that almost recalls Tom Tom Club. “Tenku” is a big dancefloor anthem with a high-pitched synth line and an absolutely relentless beat. “Let Me Know” is a ballad until the chorus—it’s a trick Perfume pull a lot, and one I rarely enjoy.

The album’s closing track, “Everyday,” was originally the B-side to “If You Wanna,” and while it’s very, very different from that song, they’re both highlights of Future Pop. The music on “Everyday” is a mix of a weird vibraphone-like sound, a big stomping beat, rave synths, and Japanese verses leading to the English-language phrases “You make me happy every day” and “We wake up early every day.” With its arena-sized house music sound and strangely joyful feel, it’s almost reminiscent of something from the Pet Shop BoysVery. So not so much the future as a strange kind of electronic classicism.

There’s a difference between “varied” and “inconsistent”; every Perfume album before 2013 was the former. Future Pop, like Cosmic Explorer, is the latter. Nakata had a lot of ideas once upon a time, and the majority were good ones. Future Pop‘s abbreviated running time, and the lack of new mixes of tracks released as singles, suggests that after 15 years, the well may be running dry. If this turns out to be the group’s farewell, it’s just good enough to leave fans with a smile on their faces.

Phil Freeman

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