Shintaro Sakamoto - How to Live With a Phantom
It’s hard not to be nostalgic about Shintaro Sakamoto’s journey as a musician. Spending two decades, from 1989 on, fronting counterculture phenomenon Yura Yura Teikoku is his defining chapter. Highlights ranging from the initial breaking of the Japanese underground scene, an eventual partnership with Sony BMG and the creation of the acclaimed record Hollow Me/Beautiful ensured that it was hardly a rite of passage for Sakamoto, but what looked like the work of a lifetime. After a tricky departure from Yura Yura Teikoku in 2010, however, he has spent "more than a year holed up in his home studio" and has consequently given birth to his latest solo venture, How to Live With a Phantom.
So after having sat thumbing through personal highlights of the press release, entering into the occasional unintentional staring match with Sakamoto, I decided to get into a phantom mood. There’s something striking about an album which, while at the same time being so inoffensive, has a certain amount of complexity at its behest. Almost immediately you can hear dynamic depth in the sweet melodious components of this collection of songs, but I find this irregular on records cut from this cloth. If you’re not instantly rewarded after clicking play, I assure you will be after the 4:22 number 'My Memories Fade,' in which an atmosphere established by distant slide guitar, sustained arpeggios and a withering vocal capture a moment.
The crux of How to Live With a Phantom's strengths is almost strangely easily identifiable, and listening to 'Mask a Mask' back to back with 'A Stick of Slacks' encapsulates it. Almost in a moment, we’re taken from hanging out with George Clinton in '76 and thrown into an aggro-driven lapsed frenzy. Whilst usually I’d get irritated by an obsession with variation on a record, this is both artistic and honest and as a result is enticing. I don’t want to brush over 'A Stick of Slacks'--it is the track that has really grasped me from this album. The tasteful space, texture, aggression and characteristic vocal performances sound like they’ve come straight off of Liars’ debut album They Three Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top--a hefty compliment.
There are moments where this album tries to capture a charm bereft of intensity, 'Something’s Different' and 'You Just Decided' being perfect examples. It’s hard to sustain the listener’s patience when relying on such subtlety in usual situations, but the challenge is unfortunately amplified by the language barrier. I’m sure that without this issue, these songs would resemble the more throwaway elements of Jason Schwartzman’s Coconut Records.
The leading single 'How to Live With a Phantom' captures the lovely aesthetic insisted upon by the rest of the record. After hearing the wonderful, dynamic interaction between instruments throughout, I discovered that he wrote and recorded every instrument himself. How tragic! From then on, it didn’t take much to immerse myself in this album.
Usually when I listen to records of this ilk, I become cross with the little amount at stake. But on How to Live With a Phantom, Shintaro Sakamoto breaks his back song after song to ensure he’s not only offering enough of himself, but is showing something new. Whilst sometimes structure and solace are squandered on the more forgettable moments, a handful of hooks and a spine of welcomed aggression make this the record that the 15-year-old me always wanted to make and the record I want to hear today.