async, the 16th studio album from Ryuichi Sakamoto, was written and conceived in the wake of the Japanese composer/songwriter’s diagnosis and treatment for throat cancer. While he’s in complete remission now, the experience of that prognosis and the possibility of not surviving it naturally shades every moment of this blindingly great record. But unlike other expressions of mortality like David Bowie’s Blackstar or Touché Amore’s Stage Four, Sakamoto isn’t raging against the dying of the light. The tracks on async are more often gentle sighs of relief suffused with a reawakened wonderment at the beauty of simple sounds created by man made instruments and the natural world.
What Sakamoto emphasizes in his understated way is how to find the magic in dissonance and harmony. “disintegration” finds him plucking and plonking on a piano that was damaged during the 2011 tsunami, underpinned by warm blooms of ambient synth, while “tri” takes a symphony of triangle sounds, pixelating them ever so gently at the edges for a weirdly unsettling effect. That may be hard to jibe with the lush compositions that make up the majority of the album, but what Sakamoto is attempting to do is reflect the world back on itself, an never ending pendulum swing between solace and chaos.
The majority of async is focused on its soothing qualities. There’s the quiet respite of a sojourn in the woods expressed through a field recording of Sakamoto slowly walking over crunching leaves while the haunting flow of elongated melodies wave under the surface. Or the piano melody that gets folded over with the sounds of a pipe organ, processed guitar tones and what sounds like a slow moving train. Even the quiet grumble of David Sylvian reading a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky (father of famed filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky) has an almost hypnotizing effect that helps draw you further into the undulating synth chords and small string plunks that shimmer alongside it.
The theme of async is driven home a little too strongly at times, particularly the spoken word sample of Paul Bowles reflecting on the illusion we maintain of “life being an inexhaustible well.” Even then, Sakamoto rescues the track by patiently working in more and more samples of people reading the same quote in a different language (though strangely not in his native Japanese). How better to reckon with the idea that our final breath is inevitable than to be reminded that the same fate will befall everyone on this planet.