Various Artists — A Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto: To the Moon and Back
Qobuz new release review (December 2022)
Very few musicians have had careers as diverse and exploratory as Ryuichi Sakamoto. From his early days of pioneering synth-pop with Yellow Magic Orchestra through a solo career that has encompassed contemporary classical, new wave, avant-garde electronics, movie scores, dance pop, and even bossa nova, Sakamoto has fearlessly punctured genre boundaries and infused all of his work with a sense of delicate style and insatiable curiosity. Now in his 70s and facing a recurring cancer diagnosis, he has approached the twilight of his career in the same way he has worked for the past 40-plus years: accepting praise and plaudits with graciousness, but refusing to either slow down (he has scored a half-dozen films in the last couple of years) or get mired in nostalgia. The approach of this tribute album is a perfect example. While a set like this is long overdue for an artist of Sakamoto’s stature and prodigiousness, it steadfastly refuses to take an easy or obvious path with its material. It could have easily run to twice this length, but the concision of including just 13 wildly divergent pieces reworked by 13 wildly divergent artists makes To the Moon and Back remarkably effective as a reflection of Sakamoto’s oeuvre. The range of contributors speaks to Sakamoto’s influence; whether contemporaries and longtime collaborators including David Sylvian, Otomo Yoshihide, Fennesz, and Alva Noto, early disciples like Cornelius, or a dizzying kaleidoscope of fans including Thundercat, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Devonte Hynes, and others, there is no connective tissue in the lineup other than the same sense of sonic adventure that has driven Sakamoto’s output. Unsurprisingly, the renditions (all dubbed “remodels”) often bear little resemblance to the source material they are honoring, and instead are rendered unrecognizable or, in some cases, built upon a single core element of the original. “Grains,” originally a wordless, ambient work Sakamoto did with Noto, is used as a foundation over which Sylvain sings. Inversely, the Sylvian/Sakamoto song that’s perhaps the most well-known — “Forbidden Colours” — gets redone by Gabrial Wek as an ambient piece. The rest of the album is similarly defiant of expectations. 1989’s Beauty — perhaps Sakamoto’s most explicitly “pop” album — is represented here by “Amore,” which Fennesz turns into a hazy drone of synth washes and distorted melodies, while the iconic “Thousand Knives” gets recast by Thundercat into, well, a Thundercat song, full of wobbly, bubbly bass, atmospheric noodling, and cooing vocals. Even “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” which practically serves as Sakamoto’s musical calling card, gets redone as a stark minimalist number that utilizes the original’s indelible piano motif, but shifts it to something that evokes the synthetics of YMO. While Sakamoto may be feeling a bit reflective these days, this delightful combination provides plenty of evidence of how forward-looking his impact continues to be.