“Popcorn” is the most recent album from Arashi, released on October 31st, 2012. It features singles “Meikyuu Love Song” (theme of the drama Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de), “Wild at Heart” (theme of Lucky Seven), “Face Down” (theme of Kagi no Kakatta Heya), and “Your Eyes” (theme of Mikeneko Holmes no Suiri) alongside fresh songs for this album.

I’m going to review this album on its own terms without comparison to Arashi’s previous albums. Without further ado, here we go:

1 – Welcome to our party (3:58)

Of all the songs on this album, this one took me the most listens before I could come to a verdict. While I accept electronic music (though I detest electronic vocals), I didn’t like the album leading off with heavy electronics on the first listen. Also, the first few times I heard it on regular speakers, and that exacerbated some of the weaknesses of the composition, making it seem a bit disjointed.

With headphones, though, the song works better, as you can pick up on the subtleties that make sure it hangs together. The best phrase in it is the one at 0:43, which repeats at 2:02. The way it contrasts with the rest of the song serves as the song’s strength, and was outright beautiful.

The weakest point in the song was when they repeat “happy, happy, happy” at 2:37. To my English ears, it was a bit jarring. Besides that, though, the rest of the song grew on me and I ultimately gave it the thumbs up.

2 – 駆け抜けろ! (Kakenukero! – Run past/through) (4:31)

Is this the late 70s/early 80s? Well, I often get pulled back to earlier decades listening to Arashi, and the opening of this song had a definite flavor. Things settled down once Arashi started singing, but it was still extremely mediocre until about 1:13, where the music and vocals picked up strength. The song holds together much better past that point.

The opening of the song could have been improved. In particular, the weird vocals before 0:24 were unnecessary and clash badly with the real Arashi vocals – I think I wouldn’t have minded the opening if not for them.

Otherwise, the song revs up to a nice quick pace, keeping up the energy of “Welcome to our party”, giving us an extremely powerful start to the album.

3 – ワイルドアットハート (Wild at Heart) (4:08)

Speaking of keeping up the energy, here we have the most up-tempo of Arashi’s singles. This was a song I loved from the first time I heard it early this year. It’s tightly composed, and has an extremely focused musical identity. In other words, using it as background music, you’d know exactly the kind of scene it would go with, and it sticks to that scene from the first beat to the last.

The guitar riff at the start sells the whole thing, of course, and guitar continues to do interesting things throughout the song. The vocal melodies are extremely catchy, in sharp contrast to the first two songs. The composer also understood his or her art enough to pull back and slow things down at 3:07 to make the ending work.

4 – Face Down (3:58)

This song dumps speed in favor of weight. So far, we’ve been plunging through the album at full tilt, and “Face Down” finally reins us in.

The beauty in this song is its sense of space, which is carved out right from the start. The echo, among other effects, creates a feeling of void that contrasts with the first three songs, which were filled to the brim. The beat is forward movement through the space, and that movement is occasionally brought to a halt – most dramatically at 2:21, where we’re made to feel like we’re being tossed around by Sakurai-san’s little rap (I always have trouble with the raps, but this one was short and musically significant, so I let it pass).

The phrase that started at 3:13 sold the song, gave us a destination (sounded like we finally met a friend after being tossed around in the abyss), and Ohno-san’s vocal lead capped things off.

5 – We wanna funk, we need a funk (4:36)

Matsumoto Jun‘s Vocal Solo

This . . . was the song I didn’t like. I don’t think there’s any mystery why I didn’t like it – it had all the things I dislike. Badly pronounced and misused English, check. Heavily synthesized vocals, check. Loose composition, check. Generic rhythms and melodies, check.

I’ll give it credit in one arena – it diversifies the musical styles represented on the album. I guess there had to be a song like this. Well, here it is.

6 – Two (3:55)

Ohno Satoshi‘s Vocal Solo

I have always had a high opinion of Ohno-san’s vocals, so my expectations going into this song were high.

And the vocals weren’t the problem. As usual, Ohno-san’s voice was refreshing and smooth. No, the problem was the music. There was a bit too much reverb, the background music during the refrain was too loud, and this was yet another song undermined by loose composition – overenthusiasm with effects and lack of subtlety in mixing. The music seemed to compete with Ohno-san’s voice rather than complement it.

This was a competition that Ohno-san naturally won with this sustained note at 3:12.

7 – Waiting for you (3:58)

While the music in this song worked better than that in “Two”, it had the same flaws at certain points.

Whatever my skepticism about the composer’s acumen, the turn at 2:31 saved this song for me. Still, too much computer, too little Arashi. The fine singing from the group felt like it was being drowned in a sea of algorithms.

The song didn’t really do anything to stand out, either. In its melodies, it was pretty basic – a typical pop song except for that one turn I mentioned.

8 – 楽園 (Rakuen – Paradise) (3:38)

Aiba Masaki‘s Vocal Solo

While I don’t consider Aiba-kun to be a good singer, I like his voice. It has a pleasant quirkiness to it, and they thankfully didn’t mess with it by over-processing it in this song.

Right away on this song, I felt like I was being barraged by a wall of sound. Thankfully, it cleared up and Aiba-kun didn’t have to climb over it.

The pace of the music was frenetic, and that suits Aiba-kun perfectly. However, the vocal part didn’t keep up with that pace – either the background music had to lose some notes, or the lyrics needed some more syllables. Still, I think the mismatch wasn’t too severe.

9 – 旅は続くよ (Tabi wa Tsuzuku yo – The Journey Continues) (4:59)

After being a bit underwhelmed by the previous four songs, this one started off with a trumpet fanfare. I crossed my fingers.

While musically whimsical, this song was a strong composition – free from the extraneous elements what plagued the songs that preceded it. The fact that it was leaner allowed the vocals to come through clearly and to take the lead (which I always prefer). Also, the music was strictly complementary to Arashi’s vocals.

While I didn’t find anything to dislike about it, I also couldn’t find any reason to recommend it. It was fun, but that was about it. We seem to be on the right track, though.

10 – それはやっぱり君でした (Sore wa Yappari Kimi Deshita – That, of course, was you) (5:01)

Ninomiya Kazunari‘s Vocal Solo

Well, with this being a Nino-kun solo, it should come as no surprise that it is the slowest and quietest song on the album. And, as might be expected, the piano is the primary accompanying instrument.

That means it’s all about Nino-kun’s voice, and I’m happy to say that it’s as sweet as ever. Again, it’s a matter of expressive texture more than vocal range. Nino-kun keeps close control over his voice, making sure that he gets each note with the right feel rather than aim for notes where he can’t deliver consistently.

Musically, it’s a perfectly straightforward song. The piano passage at 3:16 is the only part that jumps out, and then only mildly.

It’ll be nice to see this one performed on the concert DVD.

11 – 迷宮ラブソング (Meikyuu Love Song – Mystery Love Song) (4:38)

I still associate this song strongly with “Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de”, so by first impulse, I like the song. Actually, it’s familiarity made it feel like it didn’t fit in at first – the six songs preceding it are all new.

The song is also very different from what we’ve heard on the album so far except Nino-kun’s solo because it mostly eschews electronic noises. The result is a natural balance and flow, and with its light rhythm, an emphasis on the melody.

Even without “Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de”, the melody would sound familiar to me. You hear it and go “that must have been used as a drama theme song” because it simply sounds like one. It certainly doesn’t sound like a catchy single that’s meant to stand on its own merits, because it’s far too simple for that. It lacks flair.

Still, we’re on solid musical ground with this one. Let’s see where we go from here.

12 – Your Eyes (4:40)

Well, isn’t this the same sort of thing? But it’s a bit lighter in its step, and has more musical adornment than “Meikyuu Love Song.” The vocals are also more forceful.

Like the other singles, though, it sounds like it was composed by an adult rather than a kid hopped up on an electronic power trip. There’s a maturity to “Meikyuu Love Song”, “Your Eyes”, “Face Down”, and even “Wild at Heart” that you can also see in Ninomiya-kun’s solo and later in “Cosmos” and “Akashi”. At some point, competition will lead people to realize that while computers have in some ways made composing music easier, they also make it harder by giving the composer too much rope. It’s too easy to get carried away, and to lose sight of the more subtle beauty in exquisite music.

So, while “Meikyuu Love Song” and “Your Eyes” might not have the flair of some of the other songs on this album, they have a clearer sense of identity and coherence. Again, I think the word is maturity.

That said, it would be a pretty boring album if all the songs were “mature” and none of them expressed youthful exuberance, wouldn’t it?

13 – Fly on Friday (4:20)

Sakurai Sho‘s Vocal Solo

I’m not a big fan of Sakurai-san’s voice, and have trouble with rap, so my expectations going into this song were low.

Musically, the song was unimpressive but not offensive. Which just left the vocals which . . . met my expectations. What can I say? I like Sakurai-san as a person, but someone in Arashi had to be the one with the weakest voice, and its him. The problem is that he sounds like he’s straining with every note.

Unlike “We wanna funk, we need a funk”, though, I don’t think I’ll be skipping over this song when I listen to this album in the future.

14 – Cosmos (4:51)

Someone’s a soccer fan. At least, this was deliberately crafted to sound like a soccer song, complete with a cheering crowd in the background.

I like songs with definite identities, and this one was unambiguous. It also showed the kind of smooth artistry that I prefer. As usual when the composer takes this approach to the music, it allows the listen to enjoy the vocals more, and Arashi’s voices certainly come through on this song.

This is another one I’ll enjoy seeing on the concert DVD, and I’m sure the fans who attend the concert will have fun with it, as well.

15 – 証 (Akashi – Proof) (4:56)

Speaking of sports, this song was the theme for NTV’s coverage of the London Olympics (which Sho-san anchored). It sounds more like a drama theme than an Olympic theme, but I’m deeply conditioned by the NBC themes written by the great John Williams.

Hearing this song in this position, I realized that, in constructing the album, they had put all the youthful, boisterous stuff up front. I guess they figured the kids would all wear themselves out listening to the first half (short attention spans?) and leave the adults to enjoy the rest. Fair enough.

Again, I have no complaints about the song. It was deliberately more sedate and less inventive than most of the others, but it was also the one that had to appeal to the broadest audience.

16 – Up to you (4:18)

How will we wind things up? Will it be with a return to the volatile energy of the earlier part of the album, or a more restrained “arigatou”-style song?

How about a bit of both? The music of this song is tightly composed and complements the vocals – just like all the songs from “Tabi wa Tsuzuku yo” on. Again, the effects are restrained.

The actual tempo and tone of the song is upbeat and bouncy (I think they actually say “bounce”). It’s not quite as energetic as “Cosmos”, but was more appropriate as the closing song to an Arashi album.

At the same time, it was similar to the earlier songs in that it alluded to an earlier musical era. This time, it reminded me forcefully of “The Wiz” – again, the late 70s and early 80s. Is that a good thing? Well, in the case of this song, it wasn’t bad.

It’s difficult to sum up an album. To do so, I generally think about the situation where I’d be most likely to listen to it, and see how it fits. For Hey! Say! Jump music, I listen to it while exercising. For Arashi, mostly while working. So, the question for me is: can I listen to the album all the way through while working?

In the end, there’s only one song I would have to exclude from the playlist – “We wanna funk, we need a funk”. There’s just no way I’d let myself be caught listening to that. It might work for Japanese listeners, but among other English speakers, it’s not going to happen with me. Sorry, Matsumoto-kun.

Otherwise, it’s all good. As I noted in my comments above, I felt some of the songs were better than others, but that’s only in listening to each one closely. While listening casually, I’m not so picky. Taken as a unit, the album also pulls together quite well and has definite coherence. There is a noticeable organizing principle in the music dividing the first half of the album from the second half, but also some crossover – best embodied in “Up to you”.

Okay, that’s it! I’d love to hear your opinions – especially if you disagree with me – so please feel free to contribute by commenting!