Cornelius – Point (2001)

MI0000355326During the grand finale of Fantasma, there’s a moment where snippets of previous tracks start playing in rapid succession, as though the album’s life is flashing before its eyes. On Point, the first track “Bug (Last Electric Minute)” is comprised of sounds that are on future tracks, sort of a small preview or digest of things you are about to hear. I’m definitely not the first person to notice this but I feel I have to point it out since it says so much about the jump that Cornelius had made from Fantasma to Point. When we last left the guy, he was still part of the duo Flipper’s Guitar, a band that based much of their sound on their record collection, sort of a Japanese take on the Madchester sound. Cornelius’s solo career followed that same path – sunny pop tunes influenced by a laundry list of bands both new and old, where the art was really in the craftsmanship and the odd detours the man would take.

Fantasma, released in 1997, was the culmination of all this; a sort of “history of pop music” album that always seemed to look out for the listener, with big, splashy melodies and something to distract at every turn. Unsurprisingly, this is the album that broke Cornelius through to a new audience. Matador gave it a domestic release, marketing him as a sort of “Japanese Beck”, a label I’m sure everyone disliked equally, but it did help him sell records. After all, both Fantasma and Odelay were albums about looking back, reproducing certain elements from rock history while retaining a modern atmosphere. In the case of Fantasma it was the cut-n-paste nature of so many of the elements; some songs sounded more “live” than others, but much of it felt like a mash-up. If you told someone that it was made up entirely of previously recorded sounds a la Four Tet or DJ Shadow, they would probably believe you. Many pieces of the album sound complete, but they’re arranged in ways that are strange or interesting.

Point refines that approach to another degree, reducing the elements to their individual sounds and then putting them back together. Granted, electronic acts had been doing something like that for decades, transcribing funk riffs and punching them into the computer. But the majority of what you hear on Point are acoustic instruments, with riffs and melodies reconstructed note by note. The second track, “Point of View Point” demonstrates this well; guitar chords in each ear, a stuttered, unnatural drum beat, and vocal lines bouncing around each other. It proceeds by changing the way these elements sync up; layering vocals to make a harmony, moving from the frontbeat to the backbeat, or slowly shifting a tempo. It’s more science experiment than song, but this isn’t really what Cornelius is trying to accomplish with the album either; “Point of View Point” is again, a preview, a way to showcase what exactly he’s working with here. Those who came looking for Fantasma 2 would surely be disappointed; the humor and bounciness of that album were gone, though not entirely forgotten. As you may expect quite a few critics let him have it for that.

But the rest of it is not like that; “Point of View Point” shows just the technique, the rest of the tracks add the genre. Each tune explores different space, be it funk (“Smoke”), house (“Another View Point”), samba (“Bird Watching at Inner Forest”, “Brazil”), or even metal (“I Hate Hate”). I’ve heard this album referred to as an exercise in deconstruction, but to me it’s more about reconstruction; digging in and figuring out what makes all these genres tick. And then once you’ve got that, figuring out what can removed, or more importantly how things can be changed. You get to hear Cornelius make rhythm tracks out of splashing water (“Drop”) or nature (“Bird Watch at Inner Forest”). The cover of “Aquarela Do Brasil” uses a click-track and computer voices (is that AppleSpeak?), but uses traditional instrumentation otherwise, making it something like the exact inverse of the covers that Telex would do.

Typically these kinds of albums get dismissed as being a pastiche or “an exercise in…”, which I think we’ve seen a lot of in the last couple decades. What sets Point apart? For one, it’s clever, with plenty of dots to connect and lyrics that interact with the music. For two, the audio design is incredible, especially if you’re listening on headphones; lots of studio-as-instrument bits, but not in a way that distracts from the actual tunes (save for one particularly obnoxious bit at the end – keep the volume knob handy). For three, a sense of curiosity, and more importantly, artistry. He’s still trying to build something, but in a way that the listener is aware of its composite parts. Every element seems to be placed at a different part of the spectrum, with a sense of distance between instruments; it is very easy to hear what the individual tracks sound like. All of this could be for naught if Cornelius didn’t have this innate sense of how to trigger certain feelings through sound, melody, or timing. He’s always seemed like the kind of guy who had a huge record collection (certainly, he’s left enough hints), but on Point it becomes clear that he’s been dissecting them all along. If he wants something to be pretty, it’s almost unbearably pretty (“Tone Twilight Zone”); if he wants something to be powerful, it’s earth-shattering (the middle section of “Fly”).

Whether or not that’s enjoyable is up to the listener; it’s hard to argue that the album isn’t sterile or somewhat slight, especially when compared to the maximalist free-for-all that was Fantasma. Personally, I think it’s great – this is one of my very favorite albums, one of the few I can call “perfect” with a straight face. Obviously not everyone saw it that way. Certainly there is some sense of alchemy going on here which sits funny with some people. It’s the sort of album that’s very on-the-mark though you may question what exactly he’s trying to accomplish here.

For Cornelius, it was really the endpoint of his artistic evolution. He recently released a remix compilation called Constellations of Music, as he does every few years. It’s quite good, but it’s also a reminder of how little he’s done since Point. He did release a follow-up five years later called Sensuous, but even more clinical and conceptual, to the point where you may wonder where the actual tunes are. It’s the first time in his solo career where he didn’t reinvent himself, and to this day it remains his last studio disc. Not that he’s been inactive; he’s done soundtracks, plenty of remixes, and produced an interesting concept album with Salyu that I may review later. But Cornelius isn’t the sort to make albums just to make them, and in a sense I think Point said everything he wanted to say, just as Fantasma did four years earlier.

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