“There are only two ways for a person to live,” Tatsuro Yamashita recently told Brutus magazine. “You either constantly seek to evolve, or you resolve to hold fast to the same path. The worst is being wishy-washy and doing neither of those things.” Born in 1953, the Tokyo-based musician was always the best songwriter, arranger, and vocalist in all of city pop, but his love of music is boundless, his commitment to evolution wholehearted. He released one of the first city-pop singles, “DOWN TOWN,” with his band Sugar Babe in 1975; it’s essentially a loving riff on the Isley Brothers’ “If You Were There.” Since then, his decades-long solo career has highlighted an undying love for the Beach Boys and various strains of funk, soft rock, and soul. Despite having more than 60,000 records in his collection, Yamashita will comfortably admit that he “[doesn’t] have a lot of favorite sounds,” but he is a voracious listener. During the ’70s and ’80s he’d listen to R&B radio, buy 20-odd CDs, and then create 90-minute mixtapes; now he studies the Global Top 50 charts on streaming services. His new album Softly, his first in 11 years, is a testament to his uncompromising desire to push himself; Yamashita may be 69 years old, but he’s still striving for pop perfection.
He achieves it here because he’s really the same wide-eyed boy from 50 years ago. His love for choral groups and doo-wop was obvious on his 1972 debut Add Some Music to Your Dayreleased when he was still a teenager, and he opens Softly with a one-minute intro featuring little more than vocal harmonies. Titled “フェニックス” (“Phoenix”), it has Yamashita singing of holding back tears and moving into the future. He crystallizes such sentiments on the follow-up track, “Love’s on Fire,” becoming the mythological symbol of rebirth itself as he announces, “Yes, I’m on fire!” He’s obsessed with his lover, and he knows that their bond will keep him going. A synth-pop track with programmed drums, it’s a bit of a curveball compared to the more traditional instrumentation that has characterized his albums, but the switch-up is a sign of his creative restlessness.
Having likened himself to director Yasujiro Ozu, Yamashita is the sort of artist who largely works within stylistic boundaries. “うたのきしゃ” (“Uta no Kisha”), for example, is one of the most classically Yamashita songs on Softly, It’s built on a sturdy foundation of grooving bassline, uplifting vocal harmonies, and resplendent brass, but it’s all about his sparing use of other instruments: a vibraslap here, a train whistle there, an interlude with an unexpected synthesized beat. Towering above everything is his voice, slightly worn but with the same emotional power he’s always had to transform simple words into transcendent mantras. He concludes the song by repeatedly asking people to ride, sing, and dance to “the music train.” Much like on his 1978 single “Let’s Dance Baby,” he repeats the titular line over and over again with so much conviction that it becomes a magical, magnetic invitation.