1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
There are few genres that I find as distasteful as "New Wave." Traditionally, it talks a good game about being full of the punk vibes lingering during the '70s, but its tendency towards synthesizers, understated guitars and blasé vocals suggests otherwise to me (I don't consider the Talking Heads new wave because it doesn't fill these qualifications). I don't know much about Japan as people; they might be just as big of snobs as anyone (based on interviews, they are). But its music is certainly better.
I think part of the reason Japan succeeds where so many others failed is because they were an established act already, having released two albums under the classification of "glam rock." It would be nearly impossible for a band to entirely overhaul its sound just like that. If you listen to "Quiet Life" versus the group's previous albums, it's obvious that the guitar is toned down, vocalist Dave Sylvian has switched down to a baritone, and there is much, much more synthesizer. In case the band's preexisting fans were worried, the first two tracks are the most poppy on the album. "Quiet Life" is the dance/punk fusion that most new wave bands won't admit they were trying to be. The quick bass guitar and synth lines, coupled with Sylvian's "sexy" voice, make this pure club gold (at least at the time. I'd still listen to it at the club if I had the choice).
An interesting aspect I noticed when listening to "Quiet Life" is the instrumental contributions of bassist/saxophone player Mick Karn. Even with the Talking Heads, I've always thought of David Byrne as an excellent songwriter and arranger, not instrumentalist. And you consider how few bands receive significant contributions from the bass player, and Karn stands out. Often it's his bass lines, as in the title track as mentioned before, but also the simply awesome riff he contributed to "Alien." The saxophone was oversampled for a while once the '80s set in, but Karn's playing stands as an example of when it works.
Of course, having changed its direction almost entirely, Japan opted to try its hand at some more alternative-style tracks. The two I look at are "Despair" and "The Other Side of Life," both slower songs. "Despair" takes nearly two-minutes of mournful piano and percussion before it introduces the vocals, which are in French. It's a good track, but the French is an obvious homage to the Talking Heads, and maybe Roxy Music. I don't get "Other Side of Life" so much. A seven minute closing track is okay, but I really expected a bit more of a jam to happen. Otherwise it's just Sylvian singing in a pained voice, a little bit too long to carry on so slowly.
The group released two more albums after "Quiet Life," which made this the center of its career sandwich, and the meat is filling. The follow-up veggies and bun fell more in the range of new wave that I don't appreciate, so it's best to relish this one.
INTERESTING FACT: Karn earned two degrees in psychotherapy, and as such he took pleasure in referring to himself as a "member of the Associated Stress Consultants, Psychotherapy, and Regression & Hypno-analysts."