No longer known as “Sportfuck,” Asobi Seksu—Japanese for “playful sex”—have a more timid and suitable name that perfectly encompasses the informal sensuality of their sound. On “Fluorescence,” the fourth full-length release from the New York City shoegaze band, Asobi Seksu offers a phosphorescent sonic ocean of catchy dream-pop tunes, which are infused with a splash of karaoke and Japanese pop-punk. Though the songs can feel unfocused and incoherent, the afterglow of the album’s playful mess of heavy production and strong pop moments makes it one of the group’s stronger releases.
At its core, this is a bedroom album with a stadium soul. However, Asobi Seksu’s swelling waves of sound, replete with smudged vocals and howling distortion, weaken the impact of songs like “In My Head” and “Ocean.” The least substantive tracks exemplify the drawbacks of the unrelenting sounds—which can render them claustrophobic—and vocalist Yuki Chikudate’s occasionally tenuous vocals often get lost in the tidal pull of distorted guitars and over-produced keyboards.
“Trails,” the second track and lead single, is a haunting elegy punctuated by pop choruses. What begins as a dirge of low drones, dissonant guitar buzz, and swerving vocals dissolves into a sparkling and ebullient close. Chikudate is at her best here, using her entire range: the soulful diva, the ethereal angel, the no-nonsense frontwoman, and the childlike enchantress. This is also one of the rare occasions on the album when lyrics are featured aggressively enough to be heard over the wooly blanket of distorted instruments, and this lends the song a focus the others lack.
Though the vocals are frequently obscured by the instrumentals, Asobi Seksu can be enjoyed for the sound alone. Words don’t seem to matter much, and the reverberating electronic glisses and mumbled or elided lyrics make listening to “Fluorescence” a lot like listening to ambient remixes of pop-rock anthems. In fact, the penultimate track, “Trance Out”—one of the strongest on the album and a nod to Japanese girly pop-punk—is sung in Japanese. With shimmering tambourine, light yet insistent drumming, and a driving bass, “Trance Out” captures the essence of anthemic rock while clearly remaining hazy dream pop. As demonstrated by the song’s success, understanding the lyrics is not necessary to appreciating Asobi Seksu.
This is why it doesn’t seem out of place when the band makes forays into progressive rock territory with primarily instrumental tracks like as the short interlude “Deep Weird Sleep” and “Leave the Drummer Out There”—a nearly seven-minute long sonic maze featuring searing guitar solos and several unexpected rhythmic and atmospheric shifts. These songs, as with many on the album, can be seen as indulgent and unengaging, but as with all the songs, they are embroidered with beautifully intricate sounds which necessitate repeated plays.
As minute moments of pleasure and aural excitement build in “Fluorescence,” occasional weaknesses like the unfocused, overdone production can also be construed as strengths. In the somnambulant “Pink Light,” Asobi Seksu’s shoegazing tendencies are at their finest. The distortion is slightly more focused, but still fuzzy enough to be warm and infinitely soothing. The lyrics are sung softly like a perfect dream-pop lullaby, and mellow but steady drums and bass perfectly evoke the “seas of pink light” of which Chikudate sings. Ultimately, these moments of luminosity make the album.
Fluorescence succeeds in balancing its fogged sonic landscapes with moments of pitch-perfect pop. At times the haze obscures the overall direction and experience of the tracks while there remain pinpoints of musical brilliance and clarity that draw the listener back in. At best, the clouds of noise and opacity work in favor of Asobi Seksu’s slightly aloof shoegaze project: when it comes to Asobi Seksu, a lack of focus can be a good thing.