Their best album.
While Tin Drum really emphasized this point, Gentlemen Take Polaroids is when Japan finally stopped their shameless bandwagon hoping and made their first album that sounded like no one else’s. Of course, no one knew it because by that point, Japan had been written off as a leftover eyelash from the Eno-Bowie-Roxy Music glam rock conglomerate; it didn’t help that Bowie spend the greater part of a song that same year criticizing bands like Japan that followed in his wake just a month earlier (“Teenage Wildlife”). Except, you know, none of those artists could put out something as good as Gentlemen Take Polaroids in 1980. And yes, I’d be a fool to deny the similarities between the vocal styles of David Sylvian and Bryan Ferry, except Bryan Ferry has always been more concerned with decadence than he’s been with romance –Avalon, Roxy Music’s own entry in new romantic to come was more made for make outs than it was make ups – and he could never as convincingly sing something like “Could I ever explain this feeling of love / It just lingers on” as Sylvian does on “Nightporter.” New romantic, it’s called. Get it? “Gentlemen take polaroids / They fall in love.”
It’s not perfect, though. They simply don’t have enough ideas to carry out an entire album, so the band does the logical thing and stretches the songs that they do have to force Gentlemen Take Polaroids into an acceptable length. In a lot of these songs, the band will give you something to work with, often a propulsive rhythm, and just leave you there listening to it until they reach the inevitable conclusion. For example, they don’t have the balls to remake one of the ambient tracks off the second side of Low or”Heroes” outright as they try to on instrumental “Burning Bridges,” so they add a formless intro (that lasts 90 seconds) that’s an icy synth tasked to produce atmosphere and sounds only like an icy synth in the process, later replaced by the sounds of helicopters flying overhead in a cheap way to induce a sense of urgency (Brian Eno did the same trick on “The Bob (Medley)” on Roxy Music’s debut, except he eventually learned how to produce the same results without relying on such an aesthetic), and Sylvian tacks on an explicable verse at the end of the track, nary a melody in sight. Still though, in its defense, the melody in the main bulk of the track rivals those used in ”Heroes” and the delicate saxophone bests the use of the same instrument on David Bowie’s “Subterraneans.”
Elsewhere, “Gentlemen Take Polaroids”’s outro – despite how easily digestible those oscillations might be – goes on for too long (it’s practically a third of the track). That being said, the rest of the track is Japan at their best and poppiest; the bass notes (“Take in the country…”) that signal the chorus were a great decision, as was the wobbly tones underneath the actual chorus. And in addition to imitating his croon, Sylvian also got Ferry’s control down pat, emphasizing certain words perfectly, ie. the second instance of “They fall in love” in each chorus lingering in the air so triumphantly. Similarly, despite the fact that Mike Karn’s bass work on the following “Swing” are definitely commendable, he’s little hope of retaining interest for the entire 6-and-a-half minutes. “My New Career” might be the shortest track on the album, but it’s far from being a right off: dig the way the bass lines trade off with synths, dig the saxophone solos – both of them. Elsewhere, check out how the saxophone fluidly metamorphizes into a gorgeous female backing vocal in “Methods of Dance” (the first instance at the 1:34 mark). Closer “Taking Islands in Africa,” with help from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto looks to African rhythms for a foundation, but only that (they’re not really noticeable until the 3:36 mark, and then you realize they’ve been there all along, just buried underneath the synths). The best song, though, is “Nightporter,” where they really go to town with the term “new romantic” by incorporating elements from old romantics (Erik Satie). Every maneuver – the rests, the scales – seem to be calculated to help push the song towards its full on orchestral climax, complete with Sylvian’s wordless harmonies. Every lyric matters; sometimes corporeal (“Our clothes, they are wet / We shy from the rain”), sometimes abstract (“Longing to touch all the places we know we can hide / The width of a room that can hold so much pleasure inside”), because Sylvian knows love can be both at the same time. Their best song.
The sort of record to put on when it’s nighttime, regardless of whether you’re by yourself or others. Or maybe the type to put on when it’s daytime and you want it to be nighttime.