- Reviewed by Sam Harding -
The album art for nearly every release from The Japanese House since 2015 has consisted of white borders around a vista of horizons, dividing space into an asymmetry of emptiness and clouded colours. Somewhere between land and sky, painting and instagram post, only the occasional figure lost in the distance alludes to the artist that inhabits the synth-pop melancholy of these landscapes, trying to find herself amidst the vapour of dreams and heartbreak.
But on her latest EP, Chewing Cotton Wool, Amber Bain reclines against a sofa in a black-and-white room lit by soft glowing spheres, one arm across her naked chest and the other holding her head in thought. From an early association with The 1975, whose brand of intellectualised stadium pop-rock resounds with an overabundance of ideas, Bain has always tempered her most soaring hooks with smaller realisations, maintaining the sense of an overthinking mind held at bay as if behind a veil. In this way her lyrics trace thoughts and emotions as if they were the contours of creased bedsheets, lapping at her body while remaining separate and unknowable.
Working again with BJ Burton (the producer behind Bon Iver’s cabin crooning) her music has never felt more like the introspective silhouette of a single room. At first, the cover might deliver memories of The Weeknd’s House of Balloons, but whereas he foregrounds himself amidst excess and hedonism, she finds herself and her demons at the margins of a sparser setting, resulting in an EP all about memory and the presences that haunt the empty spaces around her.
The opener ‘Sharing Beds’ starts over a simple piano, lead with the line "something’s moving / I can’t feel her" already stirring a ghostly current of loss as she sings against the ambiguity of the song with a pained repetition of "I know / I know" before letting the track spiral away without her. With the lightening touch of the piano and the impression of another voice in the background however, the production glitches gently away from this isolated scene. ‘Something Has to Change’ is the poppiest entry on here, with a kicking drum and guitar-gleam chorus, as the same revolving days spin into repeating lyrics that yearn for something different. In our days of quarantine, the idea of taking the same train, seeing those same people and getting your heart broken all over again could ring nostalgic, even as Bain sings in search of leaving such things behind. Either way we’re all tracing the bruised repetitions of the past months in the hope of moving forwards.
‘Dionne’ is the EP standout, not least because it features Justin Vernon on a chorus so comforting it makes you want to hug yourself for all you’ve ever gone through alone. Bain sings about standing outside of herself at a social gathering while
"Wishin' that someone would film the way I'm lookin' at you right now
I wanna watch it back and then kill myself"
In this way she encounters the pain of her last breakup as if it spans the past, present and future in one moment of digital death. But the raw recognition that you’re not over someone simultaneously adds up to the song’s catharsis, with a reference to Dionne Warwick’s hit ‘Walk on By’ and the pangs of seeing your old lover or being reminded of her by a song. For even as the tears fall, the strings that pick up after Vernon and Bain’s harmonising tug the song to heart-wrenching release, making the line ‘you’re alone with this one’ feel like an actualising truth, as long-awaited and exquisite as the meeting of these two songwriters.
On the title track, ‘Chewing Cotton Wool’ is just one of the images that lingers over a muffled piano that falls like dust, as mournful as a Thom Yorke coda. Thinking about them before a movie starts and then again when the curtains fall at its end, the presence of someone after their death is as final as the gauze placed in the mouth of the deceased. From sensing them in your own voice’s incorporation of how they once spoke, to a series of observations that are almost child-like in their innocent darkness, like a draining sink or a monster in the fridge, Bain is haunted at all times by her imagination. "You’re a memory I record" she sings, once again unable to separate the past and present. And yet instead of any effects or modulation, her voice is shadowed by another almost imperceptibly, like something she has grown used to without realising, offering another glimpse of moving away from her constantly aware mind to something more like peace.
In many ways, living as a millennial or a Gen Z is about separating your life into different phases, trying to carve out an identity in the shaky area between youth and adulthood and the shifting decades. This has never felt more true and unstable in 2020, the year when everything became some twisted joke without a punchline. With lines like "apathy’s a funny feeling" still resounding in my head from her last record, The Japanese House makes music for those blurry horizons of selfhood, spanning break-ups across albums and trying to find the next line that she has to cross to look back without attachment at a life still being lived, tomorrow and beyond.
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Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops.
Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford.