Review of Bitter Sweet [12k1047]

The Silent Ballet (.COM)

The attention surrounding NYC/Tokyo based Sawako is as low-key as her subdued drone. Despite Hum‘s cult status and Madoromi‘s acclaim, between the rest of the world and her bedroom secluded fan-base, Sawako’s hype fizzles. While overlooking her in favor of 12k’s headliners, I’ve treated Sawako like a blind date suggested by friends: total avoidance, no matter how convincing — cemented in stereotype. How could I possibly stand myself for listening to tunes penned as sunny-drone?

Song titles like “Tiny Tiny” conjure the image of Sawako with a ponytail, paint-splattered overalls, and jam-smeared fingers banging on a keyboard. I desperately wanted Bitter Sweet to confirm this notion, just so I could smirk to myself while dusting my extensive avant-garde record collection. So I held off listening to the album (“That title! That cover art!”) until I was sweating gin late at night. And I decided it was the best thing I heard all year, perfectly happy to sit in my dark apartment and listen to the midnight drone for the next week. After my inebriated knee-jerk obsession wore off, the sonic envelopment of nature and melancholy innocence in “April – From Sea Shell” and the rich organics in the one-two punch “Looped Labyrinth, Decayed Voice” and “Ex.o.tico” (which pairs an outsider freaky-drone vibe with shimmering backdrops) still make the case a convincing one.

Bitter Sweet twists Sawako’s sunny tone and reverse engineers the traditional artist trajectory: rather than polish rough edges for a more accessible sound, Sawako embraces anti-pop and descends evolution with a series of rug pulls and shatters expectation in tow. Forget what you know about her back history, bizarro Sawako has arrived and no one is smiling about a damn thing. A track titled “H U G B U G” must channel feelings of warmth and motherly validation, right? Instead it’s a desolate Lynchian sequence of hollow electronics with a wandering sonic undertone, like a serial killer cruising the highway for prey.

What irks/sticks with me isn’t just the mature vibe, but the awareness of Sawako throughout: about five minutes into “H U G B U G,” the death knoll fades into minutes of silence, then returns in a helter-skelter overture with different tones shooting off past one another, leading into an eruption of static that begins the next track, “Utouto.” This tacked-on ending doubles the desired length and bloats the material with unneeded pretense and finger-wagging. You can almost picture Sawako grinning gleefully and covering her mouth to keep from laughing.

The whole reaction to filling a role reeks of insincerity; Sawako successfully tones down the sunshine and smiles for more mature compositions, but she still looks up to gauge the audience response and juvenilely disrupts the spell. And it’s so frustrating because when she throws convention out the window and just does her thing, it blows me away. Maybe I’m just projecting my aversion to pop-expectations onto a neutral affair, but the teeth-baring “Deep Under” shows Sawako packing a hacksaw under her Little Bo Peep dress and it’s a pretty convincing testament to her potential.

Sure there are a few stumbles and minor nitpicks, like certain songs sounding indistinguishable from one another, and a few overwrought outro’s, but these are mostly quibbles and discussion jump-offs. The only major blunder is when Sawako packs cookware instead of a parachute and breaks the dreamy spell with vocals on “A Last Next.” While this criticism is fairly translucent, it’s as if we’ve gained nothing from this revolutionary album and fallen back into destructive habits.

So after this rambling way too in-depth review / subconscious projection, I still have important opinions about Bitter Sweet! It’s just an incredibly slow-burning, deep, and challenging listen. I’m not at liberty to rank albums, but this is Sawako’s most mature of the three I’ve heard, and incidentally her least schizophrenic. Ultimately, the album reflects the effort put in: a brilliant record for late night reflections and hallucinations, pot-marked and wrinkled on close examination. The ghostly soundscapes contained herein channel Basinski and Deupree at their best, and no matter the criticism or preconceptions, stigma and timidness about the genre or how it ranks against Sawako or 12k’s past output, you will find something to like about this album. Hell, I did. -James Anaipakos

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