We’ve often travelled with Mark Barrott, whose three evocative Sketches from an Island releases are so closely linked with Ibiza that they instantly transport us to sun-kissed beachside bars, where we sip cocktails and look (in our minds, if perhaps not in reality) dead cool and utterly sexy.
Jōhatsu (蒸発) is a different journey altogether, a supremely evocative soundtrack to an unreleased film portraying people who choose to leave their lives and evaporate from Japanese society. This phenomenon has been the subject of much speculation, some of it feverish, but it is grounded in reality, as this fascinating TIME article details. What causes someone to disappear so thoroughly? The reasons are depressingly familiar: domestic abuse and shame. Shame over becoming unemployed, divorced, bankrupt.
Album opener “Kyoto (京都)” drops us right in the middle of a neon-filled city, surrounded by activity and yet somehow alone, as evocative as “Alone in Kyoto” by Air.
“Shinrin-yoku (森林浴)” [forest bathing] takes us deep into the trees, where we pause and inhale the pine-tinged air. Isolated piano notes reverberate, creating space, later joined by subtle woodwinds. Is this the freedom the Jōhatsu are looking for?
“Icarus (イカロス)” sees a gentle Kind of Blue jazz quartet joined by melancholic synths, capturing the sobering feeling when you considering all that you have lost. “Kill All Ghosts (すべての幽霊を殺す)” opens in the same vein before opening into a transformative arpeggiated synth madness, surely sound-tracking a major turning point in the documentary.
The final clause of the preceding paragraph points to one of the subtle joys of listening to this album. Barrott composed the music whilst watching footage from the documentary and it’s enjoyable to try to figure out the narrative that underlies the music. From the tone, we sense that both the film-makers and Barrott himself treat their subjects with respect. In the press release the composer is quoted as saying:
With this album I wanted to create space and simplicity while allowing room for spontaneity. I was very drawn to using the piano, so I started playing the piano almost unconsciously along to the moving picture, and I got completely immersed in the process. I hadn’t felt so creatively liberated in a very long time. There had been conceptual constraints I’d placed on my creativity, and I didn’t even realise until I started writing to picture. It reminded me of the happy accidents in the early days of house, when there were no rules.
That spontaneous simplicity is most present in “One Friday in September”, in which Barrott’s left hand repeats just two piano chords, while his right hand explores the melodic possibilities they engender, a wonderful depiction of someone trying to figure out what their new life might look life. The final track “Kamikakushi (神隠し)” is perhaps a reference, for it translates as “spirited away”, surely one of the most powerful films about disappearance and, as such, a fascinating counterpoint to the Jōhatsu phenomenon. In Miyazaki’s film the young protagonist stumbles out of the normal world into a Shinto-inspired liminality where she loses her parents in a grotesque and maze-like bathhouse run by a witch. The plot sees the child figuring out how to rescue her family and transform them back to their original selves. The film could be seen as an allegory of an attempt to regain a childhood innocence that has been lost to the madness of the adult world. Do the Jōhatsu choose to flee that madness, to spirit themselves away into a new environment where they can create new rules for themselves? Perhaps. In any case, this is a gorgeous album, full of depth and beauty, as evocative as the best art always is. (Garreth Brooke)