It’s humbling to revisit an era when the most standard of his tricks were seen as a novelty for the public imagination.
Since the turn of the last decade, Perfume has taken its focus far beyond just music. Take a look at some of the tech-savvy performances by the Japanese electro-pop trio throughout the years: the graphic-mapping of its 2013 Cannes presentation, the VR experimentation of its 2015 SXSW set, the complex live-streaming project for Docomo Communications last year. Perfume is not simply a pop group anymore: it’s a vehicle driven by ambitious creatives in music, performance and multimedia, all striving to present the vision of the near future.
Perfume’s debut album GAME, released in 2008, is a reminder of a much simpler time for the trio. Given the glowing praise over the past decade for the group’s producer Yasutaka Nakata, it’s humbling to revisit an era when the most standard of his tricks were seen as a novelty for the public imagination— and even met with resistance. For one, he had to fight Perfume’s label at the time to keep the glitched skips in the group’s breakthrough single “Polyrhythm.” While the label joint-released an edited “single version” as a compromise, the vocal-chop technique in the original defined the single, if not the group’s signature electro-pop sound.
Nakata has not only perfected that production technique, executing it into more sophisticated and thrilling forms, but he has also introduced dozens of new dance-music styles for Perfume in later records. Yet none of his works have been so emotionally expressive as GAME, and the debut hits its heights precisely because of the simplicity of the pop production that expresses a certain pure, timeless innocence. It also helped that the three faces of the group — A-chan, Nocchi, Kashiyuka — were not only young in age but also discovering electronic music firsthand; the members’ only point of reference to their producer’s work at the time was “game music.” They couldn’t be better guides for a public yet to be attuned to this type of pop music.
The album overall brings the bliss and thrills of a first-time experience, and the dominant narrative present in the album is a loose theme on first love. Naturally, closer “Puppy Love” defines the eye level at which Perfume viewed love and romance during this time. The three deal with a frustrating crush who acts cold towards them in public yet tender when they’re alone together. As they grew older, they dedicated anthems to the loneliness of city life, to the doubt threatening to crush their life dreams or even to a reluctance to see love as the ultimate cure. But here, their priorities are simply to close that distance with whomever their hearts desire.
Nakata builds a bright, surging pop sound perfect for the girls’ wide-eyed perspective, and his production ticks amplify their feelings in many different ways. The constantly pulsing bass line of “Plastic Smile” syncs up to the three’s nervousness from locking eyes with their crush. The high-energy bounce of “Chocolate Disco” doesn’t give the girls any room to rest, as everybody scrambles to make the best chocolates for Valentine’s Day. The wistful piano passages as well as the Auto-Tune on “Baby Cruising Love” and “Macaroni” tease a deep yearning from the singers.
While the three navigate new emotions on record, they also try out new identities in pursuit of their inner longing: “Shiny with a soft, pretty style/ If I can be cute like her/ I can see many dreams every day in a brand-new world,” Perfumes sing in “Ceramic Girl,” about working to improve your looks and personalities to present a perfect self. The biggest makeover is the title track, which features a much more aggressive electro-bass sound. “I want to break it,” they sigh, perhaps about the gap between them and their crush, but they very well may be fighting to break their own inhibitions as well.
GAME documents these moments of self-discovery as the three experiences them, and how it all unfolds in real time makes the album so ageless no matter how dated the production may sound. No Perfume anthem feels more powerful in that regard than “Polyrhythm,” its best-known single, where the three capture a spark of a brand-new feeling. The neon synth melody is elusive as the emotion they sing about, and Nakata’s iconic skip of the beat keeps the record from moving forward. It’s a beautiful loop with the song always rewinding itself to the start to hold on to the spark for a little longer.
For the past 10 years, Perfume has tried its best to explain and expand upon this inexplicable feeling beating at the core of “Polyrhythm.” Just this year, the group’s latest single, “Mugen Mirai,” borrowed the new shape-shifting drops of future-bass in attempts to verbalize this intense emotion without a defined name. Yet no matter how much it shifts its sound to stay up to date, the electro-pop blueprint first drawn up on GAME remains the same. Perfume has grown wiser, more savvy and eloquent and has widened its creative language in the process, but it hasn’t offered an experience as electric as its very first time.