20 YEARS ON: Cornelius – Mellow Waves (2017) / Fantasma (1997)

If I had to pick one track to represent Cornelius, it would be his remix of James Brown’s “Call Me Super Bad” which appeared on CM3. It’s so odd, I can’t decide if it’s incredible or awful, but I do think about it a lot. Essentially the idea behind the remix is to take one of the funkiest tunes ever, surgically remove all the funk from it, and then artificially insert it back from scratch. This assembled clutter of drums, keyboards, and pulsing bass try to play off Brown’s voice but feel utterly contrived; when the horns come in and quickly get cut off, it almost reveals the whole thing as a joke. Alas, as the tune goes on, it eventually coalesces into something; Brown’s madcap yelling and shrieking force the arrangement to get busier and busier until it really does start to groove. Like Frankenstein’s monster walking for the first time.

cornelius-mellowaves-1493213947-compressedI mention this because Cornelius’s career often has the feel of a science experiment; ever since he crafted his hermetically sealed world of sound with Point, it feels like his music got more conceptual and harder to enjoy. What worked so well on Point started to crumble on the follow-up Sensuous, and…that’s kind of the last we’ve heard of him since then. Of course, he has not exactly become a ghost, doing soundtracks, remixes, and production work. Gotta keep the lights on, I guess. But it’s been so long that the announcement of Mellow Waves came as a surprise – why now, what’s he up to? I guess if you’re really following him, you can look at some of his recent work with salyu x salyu and Metafive, which act more as a prelude to this album than Sensuous. Both marked a return to fully-fledged songwriting, so it’s not a surprise that Mellow Waves is more song-based than any album since The First Question Award – itself an outlier in his catalogue, if only due to its normalcy.

That’s appropriate, since this feels like a new beginning; this time, all the usual tricks are now in service of the song, rather than serve as an exercise in refinement or a realization of fun little one-sentence ideas.  That said, the songs still feel like they’ve been assembled piece-by-piece in the studio, thanks to all the different reverb and stereo effects. Oftentimes it sounds like the rhythm tracks are pulled from different songs entirely. But like the James Brown remix, the tunes generally fall into a flow – the stiffness that marked much of Sensuous is mostly gone.

You can hear that right away on “If You’re Here”, which right off the bat sounds like the most intensely personal and melancholic track he’s ever done. It’s full of shimmering guitar chords, little synth blasts, and wistful vocals; despite its warmness there is a very tangible loneliness to it that you don’t see Cornelius hit upon very often. The construction of it is not unlike “Fit Song”, but this time there is an actual tune, as if to reveal the last two decades of his work as a run up to what he’s doing now. In fact it’s sort of difficult not to hear it that way, since many of the same sounds that marked Fantasma, Point, and Sensuous are all here.

Whether or not this is a good thing is up for debate. Despite their gimmicky nature, I still 51NeIusa3FL._SY355_think that Fantasma and Point are basically perfect albums. Fantasma, in particular, is destined to go down as the man’s unimpeachable classic. Released 20 years ago, it’s both the logical endpoint of Japan’s vaunted Shibuya-kei scene and a perfect realization of the Alt-Everything mania which had taken over the US airwaves. Despite a dizzying variety of genres and styles (drawing comparisons to Odelay, which in turn wound up dubbing Cornelius as the “Japanese Beck”), there’s a simple overarching theme here, and that’s “if it sounds good, use it”. It’s no surprise this album achieved the success it did – it’s nearly impossible not to like, as most tracks seem designed to engineer a smile. What’s more, it sounds like such a singular work – a journey through the brain of a man raised on Britpop, The Beach Boys, electronica, and game show themes, taking everything he’s learned and distilling it to pure essence. Take “Count Five or Six”, a track whose only real theme is “rock out in 6/4 time”, to the point where the hook is simply the beats being counted (by a robot, of course). Or “2010”, which takes a Bach fugue and transforms it into a hyperactive bleepscape. Even the more song-like tracks have their own gimmicks going on – the frantic drum freakout on the chorus of “Star Fruits Surf Rider”, the two-songs-glued-together tape experiment of “Chapter 8”, and the shoegaze-like distortion that marks “Free Fall” and “New Music Machine”. There are little musical references all over the place, to the point where no one person could possibly catch them all without some help. It is Imitation Music, but with a chocolate center.

Mellow Waves doesn’t really have anything like that going on – the only real “fun” tune is “Helix/Spiral”, which revolves around a rotating time signature, as though it was built from the title up. In some sense it is like a sequel to “Count Five or Six”. Other than that, the music is fairly…(*searches for other words*) uh…mellow, even on the more upbeat tracks (“Sometime/Someplace”, “In a Dream”). Part of this is just a natural consequence of Cornelius limiting his sound palette to only the most aesthetically pleasing (the Fender Rhodes and the “Breezin” synth are all over the place) – while Fantasma tended to throw in some abrasiveness and sometimes stacked a lot of elements on top of each other, here everything is well defined and pleasant.  Even the isolated drum tracks and guitar picking just sound incredible; the drums are often clear of any reverb whatsoever, while the guitars seem to ring off the wall (not to mention the solos, which are excellent across the board). In fact I’d say this is probably his best-sounding record overall, if only because the sense of sterility that marked his post-Fantasma work is generally alleviated here. So much of this just sounds gorgeous, particularly when things get stripped back – the ambient tones of “Surfing on Mind Wave pt.2” and the acoustic guitar instrumental “Crépuscule” are the sort of tracks you just wanna curl up and live in.

So what is it? A new beginning for Cornelius, or is he just stopping by to say hello? At barely over 40 minutes, it almost feels incomplete – while his other albums weren’t exactly a whole lot longer, they did feel more self-contained, with a clear beginning and end to them. Mellow Waves starts and finishes in a melancholy place, without much of a journey in between. Perhaps that’s just part of getting older. Fantasma, as great as it is, sounds so much like a man eager to make an impression, an album designed specifically for those who would be inclined to tune someone like him out. On Mellow Waves he’s just getting down to business – everyone expects sonic perfection from the guy, so here you go. We can only hope there’s more where that came from.

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