Bubblegum pop, as it used to be, is largely dead. For years, massively hybridized electronic dance music (EDM) songs meant for instant delivery to the club have dominated the airways. The sugary synths and smooth bass lines that were once ubiquitous have disappeared, and the times when they flowed through our transistors feel distant. Certainly, there have been champions of that lost sound, most notably artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, who on Emotion tapped into a forgotten innocence while wholly embracing the 1980s’ influence to produce one of the best albums of 2015. But one has to be wary not to throw about carelessly the revivalist label when talking about a group like Kero Kero Bonito, who is influenced by its pop predecessors, but their focus isn’t about writing a love letter to the past.
Bonito Generation is England-based Kero Kero Bonito’s second full-length album. Comprised of electronic producers (and childhood friends) Gus Lobban, Jamie Bulled and the half-Japanese singer and frontwoman Sarah Midori Perry, this group has been producing some incredibly sweet, fun and goofy pop for the past two years. They’ve pulled their inspiration from diverse sources such as Japanese city pop, hip-hop and ‘90s video game music to create a unique style and image for their band, which sometimes feels as if it has been placed on a high-budget, slightly irreverent children’s show. But still, sweetness is not the same thing as superficiality, and fun is not the same as thoughtlessness — keep that in mind when listening to Bonito Generation.
Kero Kero Bonito never seems to care about what others think. The opening track on the album, “Waking Up,” is brimming with swagger, opening with percussive horns that give way to bouncing bass synths over which Perry raps with a cool and collected flow, alternating between English and Japanese at whim. The hip-hop groove of the song, however, smoothly breaks down after Perry questions if she’s dreaming, cueing a synth-wash crescendo which resolves into a quiet reprisal of the chorus accompanied by some incredibly sugary sweet bell synths. Ultimately, the horns come back and the song ends in the boisterous way it started. Keep in mind that this song is entirely about the universal struggle of having to get up in the morning. It contains some lines about showing “up in the place” and “looking great” to match the swagger of its instrumentals, but that doesn’t cut into the inherent lightheartedness of the song.
“Heard a Song” operates in the same manner, centered around that feeling you get when you hear a catchy song on the radio but can’t recall its name. An overwhelming majority of these songs are focused on everyday, universal experiences. The album doesn’t try to provide any answers or cast any judgement. Rather, the album is a picture of life, a show about nothing that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but is still surprisingly sober and well-thought-out. It’s far from a philosophical work, but it’s not devoid of any substance either.
Musically, the album falls into two very rough camps between which it bounces at will. Some songs, like “Waking Up,” are more hip-hop oriented. “Graduation” is powered by its fat 808-sounding bass line and its spaced-out, melodic components. Songs like “Big City,” “Fish Bowl” and “Picture This,” on the other hand, are saccharine, synth-pop delicacies in which Perry’s adorable singing voice takes center stage. The rest of the album falls somewhere in between, with a tendency toward the poppier end of things.
Make no mistake, though. Kero Kero Bonito set out to produce something truly unique within the contours of pop, and their efforts have paid off. Both the expert yet goofy production and Perry’s genuine vocal ability of switching between rapping in laidback flows and singing in the most meltingly charming inflections, make this album shine through. But beyond any cerebral analyses, this album is just plain fun. It’s catchy and has the right amount of quirk to make it appealing. There are no illusions of grandeur here — it’s a party, and that’s all it needs to be.