Without walking, I would be dead.
—Robert Walser, “The Walk”
I love walking, both as physical and intellectual exercise. Walking reconnoiters one. Walking sets one apart. One cannot be held in stasis if there is motion.
Of course, walking can be a manifestation of idleness. In the 19th century, with the proper rise of metropolises like London and Paris, a somewhat new class of person emerged in the social strata: the flâneur, people of means who could afford to dress well and walk the streets, lingering in cafes and enjoying the urban efflorescence.
It’s not as if they invented walking, but the times they lived recontextualized them. And walking is how I choose to contextualize a superb new album: MI WO by Ytamo.
MI WO feels exploratory in the best sense. Songs start one place and end up in another; sounds reappear and disappear, elements swift in transit throughout. Ytamo’s means are somewhat pinned down to keys or synths, programmed drums, and occasional horns, but the album itself feels like it is constantly moving.
Which brings me to the main problem I had in writing this review—wrangling with a decidedly abstract question. Does one hike through MI WO or does one walk its soundscapes? Do we stroll along, admiring the plan made actual without really entering it or do we tromp along the topography and immerse in landscape?
Well, it depends on how you imagine it. On the one hand, the tracks on MI WO are clearly well-planned, with layers of looping sounds adhering to an internal structure. Rigid as landmarks, as you approach them, after you familiarize yourself with them, the sounds you love on MI WO light upon you, and you reencounter them. Be they the pings that open “Hamon” and successively modulate across the track, or the titular refrain on “100 Birds Stories” (“hundred birds / making sunshine and sunlight”), or the askew organ flourishes on “Colorful Waves,” or the ringing telephone on “Hen.”
In that sense, it’s very easy to imagine walking through MI WO, letting Ytamo guide you through its sonic streets or across its landscape. There is a conversation she carries with you, but you also catch snatches of other voices, birdsong, rustling wind. Ambience.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to describe these songs, even after listening to MI WO five, ten times. It’s like trying to extrapolate a puzzle from one piece. Or a city from one street. Or gestalt from one viewpoint. Even a flâneur is still situational to where they are in the city. To be in Paris the Rue Vivienne is very different from being in Paris, a designation reserved to architecture and memory—among others.
In revisiting MI WO, in hearing it, one does not merely take the same walk. One enters into a state of sonic simultaneity, as past listens contend with current enjoyment (or dislike, if you’re not me). MI WO succeeds, in part, because every song stands out as individual pieces, but they also socket together well.
And, as the last strains and small crushes of “Sensorial Area” wash over you, you feel like you should after a good walk: muzzy, with a thrumming cenethesis.
The soul of the world had opened and I fantasized that everything wicked, distressing and painful was on the point of vanishing… all notion of the future paled and the past dissolved. In the glowing present, I myself glowed.
—Robert Walser, “The Walk”
I’m about a quarter into my umpteenth time listening to MI WO. Ytamo, the Japanese experimental artist cueing these horns and kicks, is cooing incoherently into acrylic bleeps and bloops. There’s a snap of chiptune that unevenly unwinds into a coda…
Suddenly we’re on an island, where the rhythm section of a ska band is jamming with some arena rock synthesizers and shooting lasers at robots. Everything sounds like the creation of an elementary school art class – playful, inspired, artificial, natural. There’s electronics twinkling with the stars, and electronics groaning with a crashed modem. An upright piano plunks out a melody, static bubbles pop, and a singer warbles something too distorted for me and my one semester of Japanese to understand.
As always, the album ends and I find something else to listen to. I forget how much I sincerely enjoyed Ytamo’s colorfully crafted new album, and get this weird idea that I actually find it boring. A month later, I come back to MI WO to write a long overdue review, and suddenly I’m reminded of how sunny and enjoyable this album actually is. And at the end of that listening, I have to somehow unravel that phenomenon.
Initially, I was thinking about how much of MI WO’s charm comes from its buoyant whole. There aren’t many moments that stick out to me individually. I don’t think I can name a single song I’d put above the whole – I don’t even think I can name a song without looking at the tracklisting. There aren’t a lot of specific flourishes I can name, either: I always remember the percussion of the first song (“Hamon”), the 808s and heartbreaks of the second track (“Autopoiesis”; I don’t think they’re actually 808s), and the koto at the beginning of “Hen.” But those aren’t even the best parts of those songs; “Hamon” is great for its dreamy electronic whines, “Autopoiesis” for its blinking 64-bit ornaments, and “Hen” for its neon ambience.
I also thought about what a friend of mine said about MI WO, claiming it was a “front heavy” album whose best moments come at its exposition and not its denouement. At the time, I was tempted to agree with him. But then I listened to MI WO again and realized that my favorite moments were back-half standouts like “Hen” and “You Me,” two of the album’s more comfortable tracks when compared to their more eccentric counterparts at the beginning of the album. They’re shinier despite their more dystopian aesthetics, complete with some of Ytamo’s more obvious nods to jazz.
In the end, I don’t have an answer, and I’m not sure I really care to find one. There’s a very real possibility that, in a week’s time, I’ll once again fall back on that irrational conclusion that MI WO was a boring album. But as of right now, coming off yet another spin through it, I can confidently say that MI WO is wonderful. It’s colorful, eccentric and charmingly joyful. MI WO is an album that makes me smile when I hear it, and I think that’s enough of a conclusion for now.
MI WO is out now courtesy of Someone Good.