MORNING MUSUME ’21 – 16th ~That’s J-POP~
The Fukumura Era of Morning Musume (2014-present) has been mostly frustrating for me personally for several reasons. From a production standpoint, their recordings have relied heavily on sounds and techniques established during the Michishige Era (2012-2014), even to this day. I’ve found the catalog during Fuku’s leadership to be spotty compared other eras, albeit pretty good overall and with a few stand-out tracks. Finally — and this is admittedly unfair and a bit catty — I’ve just never been all that drawn to Mizuki Fukumura as an idol. Which is not to say that I dislike Fuku, because she’s strong in just about every category I value in an idol: she’s a top-half All-MM singer, a solid dancer, easy and engaging in conversation and obviously a very hard worker. But as Tsuku notes in one of his early books, the great thing about idol groups is that there is a type for everyone, and I guess Fuku just isn’t my type. It doesn’t help that her run began just as the Hello! Project became a simmering volcano on the verge of erupting classic songs across every group not named Morning Musume.
After a bit of reflection, though, I’ve concluded that Fukumura’s MM has not been as forgettable in hindsight as it seemed in the moment. They produced at least one bonafide MM classic in “Utakata Saturday Night!,” and a couple of on-the-cusp classics with “BRAND NEW MORNING” and “LOVEpedia.” Their indefatigable performance at the 2019 Rock In Japan festival was legendary to the point that it created social media buzz outside of the H!P fandom, and their lineup includes arguably the brand’s greatest singer ever in Sakura Oda. The only thing this era needed to truly solidify their legacy, IMO, was a classic long-player. ⑮ Thank you, too came really close, but was ultimately held back by a group of singles that didn’t rise to the quality of the album tracks and an unforgivably thoughtless track order. It’s a very good collection of songs, but original albums should be more than that, as the best Morning Musume albums are.
16th ~That’s J-POP~ suffers very few of these weaknesses and boasts a menu of album tracks that eclipse even those of Thank you, too. “Aishite Nan ga Warui!?” opens the album with a tense, not-quite-up-tempo track that sets a restless mood with the minor-chord verses that resolve triumphantly in the major-driven chorus, right up until the last bar signals that maybe everything isn’t so settled. It’s such a great opener that I can look past the 2014-era sounds that pop up here and there, because the mood it sets for the album is captivating.
“Gyuu Saretai Dake na no ni” ramps up the energy nicely, while retaining the tension from “Aishite Nan ga Warui!?” The single with this and “Junjou Evidence” has settled in as one of my favorites from this era, and both work even better in the context of this album. That context, for the most part, is anxious unease, and the third track, “Shinjiru Shika!” hits the peak of that feeling with its dissonant, creepy insect-like lead synth/vocoder, choppy syncopated half-time back beat and ever-present dense vocal harmonies. I’ve bemoaned this vocal production technique as having been over-used in modern MM recordings — and it has — but for this song the effect is striking. The vocals are way up front with the harmonies establishing the chord progression almost exclusively, and the result is gorgeous. This is the first of the small-group tracks, and features Oda, Kaga, Ikuta, Ishida, Morito and Okamura. Not exactly a Murderer’s Row of singers, but Oda carries the load and delivers like only she can, while Kaga, as usual, performs well in more limited duty.
“TIME IS MONEY” boasts a much stronger vocal cast: Masaki, Nonaka, Yamazaki and Yokoyama. Aside form being generally strong singers (Yoko excluded) they have some of MMs most distinctive voices that stand out in a crowd (Yoko included), so grouping them together posed the potential for an auditory oil-and-water clash, but their vocal timbres are similar enough that they mesh together quite well. The song is modern Cool Musume EDM, and Maa and Mei really shine here. In fact, Mei establishes herself as a lead vocalist throughout this album. For all the talk of Rio being the future leader — and she just might be! — I think Mei’s development as a singer is even more important. Rio is a decent singer, but Mei is the real deal, and as her personality matures to the level of her skills, we could find ourselves mentioning Mei in the same breath as Oda, Takahashi and Tanaka. If Rio is the future leader, Mei is the future ace.
With the tension subsiding a bit on “TIME IS MONEY,” “Nakimushi My Dream” brings us to full ebb tide with a classic Tsunku ballad. The full group is represented, and while it’s mostly lead by the usual suspects, each of the 15th gen girls get a line or two. It’s all feel-good H!P nostalgia — nothing ground-breaking — but it’s the best example of this I’ve heard from Tsunku in years.
The last of the small-group songs is “Futari wa Abekobe,” and it hearkens back to 4th Ikimasshoi‘s “Ii Koto Aru Kinen no Shunkan,” minus the overtly cribbed Motown feel. This feels so much like a Golden Era MM album track that I felt a bit sentimental the first few times I heard it. Fukumura, Haga, Makino and Kitagawa make up the crew here, and everyone does about as well as I’d expect, except for Haga*.
For those not keeping count, we’re through six songs and have mentioned a total of ONE singles release, which is awesome until you realize that it means the back-end of the album will be singles-heavy, which it is. This is one of the few knocks on this album — and one which could have been mitigated somewhat with a bit of savvy adjustment of the track order — but the effect of front-loading these songs is so powerful that it’s less of an issue than it might’ve been with lesser material, and it might actually be worth the back-end singles-stuffing. The most glaring issue does involve track order, though, which I’ll get to later.
Breaking the singles drought is the lead track from their most recent one, “Junjou Evidence.” I liked this single more than most at mm-bbs, but it didn’t blow me away like “KOKORO&KARADA” did (although I’d bet real money that, like K&K, the sonic foundation of “Junou Evidence” is built from a sample pack!), but like “Gyuu Saretai Dake na no ni” it plays very nicely with these album tracks.
“Kono Mama” cranks up the feel-good, idol energy to maximum with a burner of an arrangement that feels very modern H!P, but non-MM H!P. I’m thinking Tsubaki Factory or Angerme, but mostly TF. It’s upbeat, fun and infectious as a NY nursing home. This is going to be massive at live shows. From here we move solidly into the single-packing section of the album, starting with “KOKORO&KARADA” and “Jinsei Blues.” These two don’t feel out of place in the grand scheme of things, although not so great together. My gut tells me flipping their positions might help.
The final two album tracks are next, starting with “Hey! Unfair Baby,” a guitar-driven idol-rock stomper that smartly melds synth bass and programmed drums with electric guitars so well that you almost don’t notice the guitars disappear on the second verses. Also, I never thought I’d see the following lyric show up in a Morning Musume song, but here you go:
You said to leave it up to you
So it’s your job to wipe your ass after
Don’t you know?**
Fucks. Tsunku has none left to give. I love it.
The last album track, “Ren’ai Destiny ~Honne wo Ronjitai~” is an idol-rock anthem that arrives at the batters box with two strikes already on it. First: unlike “Hey! Unfair Baby,” these programmed drums are god-awful and cheapen what is an otherwise perfect arrangement. Even the 2013-era synths work in this, but those machine-gun drum fills, completely devoid of dynamics and soul, just sound BAD. How much would it have really cost to get a session monkey in there to cut a proper drum track? You hired Senri fucking Kawaguchi for a Kobushi Factory deep-cut, but the Flagship has to make due with Dr. Rhythm? The “H!P so cheap, lol” cliche has largely not applied the last few years, so of course they decided to cheap-out on one of the best MM tracks — album or single — since “Utakata Saturday Night!” Such an unforced error.
The second strike is not saving this track to close out the album. This is a classic pump-you-up closer-anthem that leaves you not wanting the afterglow to be interrupted by different music for a while. I thought the album was over the first time I heard this song end, and was completely caught off guard when “LOVEpedia” kicked in: “Oh, yeah, of course this is on here.” I suppose they did have to include “LOVEpedia” and “Ningen Kankei No way way,” (although I’d be fine with cutting the latter) but I would absolutely swing the ax on “Seishun Night,” because it’s pure filler. What’s worse is that it’s out of place filler. LOVEpedia/No Way would at least fit elsewhere on this album, but “Seishun Night” is like a rave kid in a biker bar, and it’s such a let-down. Really, all three of these are let-downs after “Ren’ai Destiny,” and simply bumping LOVEpedia/No Way in front of it and axing “Seishun Night” would have tightened the album up and created a powerful ending statement.
Despite these nagging issues, 16th ~That’s J-POP~ ranks among the best Morning Musume albums, and it’s a thrill to be able to finally say that. For six years now I’ve been watching other H!P groups collecting great songs and albums like fucking Pokémon, all the while wondering when the Flagship would get in on the party, so it’s good to see them finally slip past the bouncer. It solidifies the legacy of Fukumura’s Morning Musume as one worthy of the brand in my mind, and is by far the best of all post-Golden Era MM albums. If I had to rank it right now, I’d probably slot it 3rd behind only 4th Ikimasshoi and No. 5. There’s little to no chaff from start to (almost) finish, and every album track is outstanding. As a fan who discovered Morning Musume in late 2000, it feels good to see the current group match the excellence of the group that first captured my attention, if not the massive sales or cultural clout. For me, though, those things have always been secondary to the music, and this is some of the best music Tsunku has created for MM in a long time.
*Let’s have a side-bar talk about Akane Haga. First of all, she sounds decent on “Futari wa Abekobe,” but the point of this is that “decent” is not a word I thought I’d ever use to describe Haga’s singing. When she joined MM in 2014, she was hopeless as a singer, and she remained hopeless for four solid years. When Haruna Ogata graduated, my first reaction was, “Please tell me she’s taking Haga with her.” But soon after Oharu’s departure, Haga started to come into her own, and within a couple of years had worked herself into a serviceable singer, as well as an engaging and likable idol. Check out the Upcoming video of Haga recording her lines to “Aishite Nan ga Warui!?,” and it’s clear her improvement is not Melodyne enhanced: it’s real. She can reliably carry a tune now. She’ll never be Oda, or even Nonaka, but the fact that she’s nearly average is a credit to her hard work and dedication to Morning Musume. Because of that, I’m now happy to see her pick up a solo line or two.
**Thanks to helloprolyrics for the lyrics translation.