Akiko Yano has every right to be smiling. A musical prodigy, she received rave reviews and commercial success with her first album at age 21 in 1976. Arguably, she perfected her form on 1980’s Dinner’s Ready with its massive scope and experimental, yet accessible pop endeavors. This is due to both Yano’s songwriting and her then-husband Ryuichi Sakamoto’s dynamic production. Sakamoto, something of a renaissance man, is best known as a member of the influential electronic group, Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO, who also play on this album). He is also a famed film composer whose scores include The Revenant and the David Bowie led Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
For this record, the team of Yano, Sakamoto and YMO create an ambitious and atypical pop album. The combination of Yano’s silky melodies, the band’s multi-layered arrangements, and the songs’ sprawling structures still sound cutting edge today.
At 74 minutes and 12 songs, most of Dinner’s Ready’s tracks are in the five to six minute range. However, the majority are digestible and rarely feel bogged down, resulting in a daring album that is as poppy as it is experimental.
One of Dinner’s Ready’s key strengths is Yano and YMO’s confident application of synthesizers, which exhibits these instruments’ vast potential in art pop. This is accomplished by creating a multi-layered sound in which the synthesizers are rarely isolated; instead, they are woven into songs as symbiotic companions to pianos, guitars, vocals, or realized best on this record, to other synthesizers. A perfect example appears during the first few seconds of the album (on ” Hitotsudake”) through a dueling, spacey synth intro. It’s important to note that the two melodies here are layered atop the other, not against each other, existing in sonic harmony.
This instrumental variety and expansive scope is best represented on “Zaikungtong Boy.” Whether intentional or not, Yano channels Smile era Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, capturing his avant garde “pocket symphony” sound, bringing to mind both the zaniness of “Heroes and Villians” and the lushness of “Good Vibrations.” What begins as a piano- driven new wave piece builds into a tightly crafted sonic collage. The pre-chorus is a bouncy synth hook that balances four overlapping melodies (the lead, bass, and two backing) to form a miniature orchestra. Elevating an already impressive song is a fantastic guitar solo which soars over a peppy chiptune. If handled by a less experienced artist, this song (and others on the album) might lack the tightness of Sakamoto’s production. In addition to this song and the opener, other sprawling, Smile-inspired pieces are “Bon Bon Bon” the title track, and others.
Another album highlight is “Tong Poo,” a quirky piece sung in an enka (crooning, traditional Japanese pop) style. This track originally appeared on YMO’s 1978 self-titled release, but the Dinner’s Ready’s version contains lyrics by Yano. “Tong Poo” is the ideal combination of YMO’s electronic prowess and Yano’s unique vocal delivery.
The album’s longest track, “Genkotsu yama no onigiri-sama,” is both a high and low point, depending on your tolerance for extended codas. It features an excellent vocal range, some interesting tempo changes, and a wealth of different sections, but at over eight minutes, it feels slightly longer than it needs to be. Still, this track is an impressive piece of ambitious songwriting.
Because this is such a sonically vast album, some more traditional moments are welcomed, particularly on “Coloured Water” and “Let’s Meet Again,” with the later sounding like an opening number in a musical. Smaller, unexpected moments such as the brief tribal chant on “Genkotsu yama no onigiri-sama” and the jazzy piano break on “Let’s Meet Again” exhibit Yano and YMO’s tireless creativity on the album.
In some ways, Dinner’s Ready’s dense production feels akin to records such as the Talking Head’s Remain in Light or David Bowie’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. Interestingly, all three were released in 1980; this speaks to the era’s more experimental tendencies, rooted in punk and new wave. Though Yano’s album is admittedly more poppy, it shares these albums’ innovative combination of multi-layered instrumentations and standard pop structure to find a profound meeting point between the two.
As a whole, Yano’s expansive and adventurous album is something of a rarity; it’s a synth pop record that has not aged a day. Almost 40 years later, Dinner’s Ready still sounds fresh, inviting, and daringly original. On the final song, “You’re the One,” Yano sings, “Sorry to tell you, but I have to leave now,” and also states on the track, “I’m satisfied.” I’d have to agree with both of these sentiments.