Our current culture seems to be infatuated by 80s-twinged synth music. There’s a good reason for this: it fits our obsession with nostalgia. For proof, listen to the Stranger Things or It Follows soundtracks, or acclaimed indie hits such as Arcade Fire’s “The Sprawl II” or Mac Demarco’s “Passing Out Pieces.” All of these modern works take inspiration from electro-pioneers. One such innovator is Yukihiro Takahashi.
Takahashi is an electro-smith. As a member of the incredibly influential group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), he essentially helped develop electronic music. His solo releases continued to explore and expand the genre. 1981’s Neuromantic is a futuristic pop album on which Takahashi sounds equally amused and resigned. “You were all I wanted to see,” he sings hopefully on “Curtians,” followed immediately by the lyrics, “But I was just a bit color-blind/ Rose-tinted eyes made a fool of me.”
In the coming years and throughout the majority of the 1980s, synth pop would dominate the airwaves. At the time, this must have simulated a funeral procession of sorts for traditional rock and pop. Takahashi’s quiet voice comes across as a man who has accepted some type of fate, one which he ultimately helped orchestrate. As he laments, often sounding like a subdued David Bowie (especially on “Grand Espoir”), the electronics surge ahead.
It’s clear that the synthesizers are the main attraction here, but Takahashi’s singing and strong melodies remain piercing, yet distant. This creates a futuristic, sci-fi sound that avoids the stereotypically cheap and overdone production of many synth-heavy records. On Neuromantic, Takahashi has not accepted defeat to his musical machines, but he seems content with them doing most of the talking.
Just as YMO expertly mixed electronic music with pop vocals, Takahashi does the same. The synthesizers are never overpowering, even when their channels are mixed at a higher volume than the vocals. Everything filters into one crisp sound, rarely appearing stilted or disconnected. This is perfectly illustrated on the opening track, “Glass.” Upon first listen, the various synths may feel chaotic together, but after a few play-throughs, the deftly harnessed sound of a layered, harmonious riff becomes more evident.
In addition to synth pop, Takahashi helped innovate and influence another genre: video game music. One section in “New Red Roses” vaguely echoes the main theme of The Legend of Zelda, which was written five years after Neuromantic. The middle of “Charge” resembles a sped up, looping melody off a Double Dragon game. This is not coincidental; YMO and its members’ influence on video game music has been highly documented.
Continuing to musically trail blaze, Takahashi’s “Extra-Ordinary” works as an excellent companion to any song on the Talking Head’s 1983 work, Speaking in Tongues, an album which also toys with the playful partnership of pop and consistent, pulsating grooves. On a side note, whenever I hear the wobbly synth on “Extra-Ordinary,” I can’t help but think of David Byrne’s comically woozy “Huuuh!” reverberation from Speaking in Tongue’s “Moon Rocks.”
The key difference between today’s synth pop and albums like Neuromantic is that Takahashi’s work is not nostalgic. Neuromantic is the sound of someone who knew he was innovating. The electronic music on something like Stranger Things is meant to invoke the past, but Takahashi’s music is meant to invoke the future; a future that ultimately became associated with a specific time in pop history, for better or for worse. Electronic music will keep evolving, but early genre efforts like Neuromantic have rarely been surpassed. That’s why we continue to be nostalgic for this music; it fills us with sounds of a future that never came.