What gets shunted aside as art-rock these days? I first ran into the name Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1986, when the Japanese composer-pianist, a co-founder of techno pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra and subsequent international solo artist, guested on Public Image Ltd.’s Bill Laswell-produced Album, the most feverishly freezing rock music ever concocted. Here, amid layers of naked strategy and pitiless engineering and mad John Lydon, were organs of incongruously rich efflorescence played with a noble simplicity. Laswell had recognized both how special Sakamoto’s keyboards were and how profitably, in emotional ways, they affected the otherwise dire surroundings. Whoever had played those parts, well, you had to find out. Three years later, Robert Smith worked with similar textures on Disintegration, his Cure masterwork.
Many Japanese imports and—beginning with the ’87 Laswell-produced Neo Geo album—domestic releases later, you discovered that the Sakamoto story represents one of the most dynamic musical displays of our lifetimes. Trained at conservatory in Tokyo, always a big Debussy and Ravel and Burt Bacharach and Beatles and Brazil fan, Sakamoto nonetheless has approached his interests like an Asian Eric Clapton. Watch Sakamoto in the five performance videos collected on the DVD that accompanies Moto.tronic, the first U.S. compilation of his recordings. There he is—draped first in a white suit, later more denim-casual—called by and ultimately commanding, from behind his various keyboards, ostensibly conflicting musical universes. Like Clapton, he started out funky, impressing r&b fans when YMO’s 1980 “Computer Game” single made its best showing on the U.S. soul charts—but this is a guy who also can stop the beats and score a film with the genius of John Barry. Also like Clapton and his companionable virtuoso flash, Sakamoto boasts a piano style wherein pop lines written with the candid beauty of French impressionism are voiced with an objectively hard, note-to-note matter-of-factness instead of more unbrokenly phrased flows. As with Bacharach’s, Sakamoto’s piano is like a Dragnet version of romanticism. With such grounding, he can go almost anywhere.
Moto.tronic shows that. “Neo Geo” and “Tibetan Dance” find Sakamoto fusing local Asian vocal music with Laswell’s signature interface of global rhythms with state-of-the-art technology. In “Risky,” Sakamoto casts a bravura Iggy Pop not as interesting kook but shirtless heir to Sinatra. Sakamoto’s movie music is represented by the surging new Pacific themes he wrote for The Last Emperor and Little Buddha, as well as a rationalist slow dance of a ballad, “Forbidden Colors” (from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) sung by David Sylvian. Pieces such as “Before Long” showcase his acute piano writing and playing. Rare Force’s wicked remix of “Anger,” which uses excerpts from Sakamoto’s “Untitled 01—2nd Movement Anger,” syncs up with both his YMO origins and the sensuous techno-house Sakamoto released on such ’90s albums as Heartbeat. Other selections come from two dreamlike albums (this year’s A Day in New York and 2001’s Casa) Sakamoto has recorded with Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum and his wife, singer Paula; here, Sakamoto immerses himself in the dusty waters of Antonio Carlos Jobim.
In the ’70s, when everyone except teenage Rush and Jethro Tull headbangers grew fond of invoking art-rock as a barely coded insult, musicians thought to be practicing it lived mostly on farms in England, could hear beyond bass-guitar-drums, and wrote symphonic-style albums rooted somewhere in official Western cultural history. Later, when the offshoot term art-pop appeared, supposed partisans of whatever that meant more likely were black-clad bubblegum thinkers, sometimes possessed of a literary bent, who hung around a lot in galleries and at poetry readings. Like post-techno crap categories such as trip-hop, art-rock and art-pop described less what was than what was not: namely, operating with the mythic innocence imagined to be the province of only the most motivationally pure rock and roll creators. In addition to many more excellent things, Sakamoto’s example shows that art-rock ghettoization is bunk.