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Delirious With Weird

Saturday, May 10, 2003  

When I was 8 or 9 years old our school had a guest speaker come and talk to us about the years he had spent living in China. I can recall only two things from this distant lesson; firstly, that Chinese people apparently loved The Moody Blues, and secondly, that Chinese culture innovates and creates, whilst Japanese culture merely replicates and revises ideas drawn from elsewhere. How much truth there was in this I didn’t know and still don’t; in all probability it was just the unformed musing of a strange old man. I certainly don’t give it any credence as anthropologically observed cultural fact. Yet it almost made a kind of odd sense to my formative self, and the notion has remained at the back of my mind through the years.

Cornelius filters fifty years of Western pop music through a lens which distorts cultural topography, delineating space, time and genre; the result is surf pop harmonies directly juxtaposed with electronic glitch, underground guitar abuse, hip hop beats and the woozy ambience of psychedelia, to create something approaching avant garde futurist pop. A few years ago we’d have called him postmodern, but these days we’re over the shock of the sampler and the intertextual referent, and such pigeon-holing is no longer necessary. The question is not whether what Cornelius does is postmodern, or even whether it is any good (it is very good); the question is whether he is an innovator or merely a confused replicator.

Like The Vines looking at Britpop and grunge from an antipodean remove and getting the cultural references all wrong, Cornelius hears Western music from a perspective shorn of cultural context, digests the signified without ever being aware of the signifier or even the sign, and takes what he likes almost arbitrarily with no sense of guilt or etiquette, un-hamstrung by the US/UK alt.pop hierarchy’s need to pay dues and stay within the strictly lineated confines of orthodoxy. The difference between The Vines and Cornelius is that his end product is so much more colourful, eclectic, and unpredictable. Why is this? Perhaps Japan is at that one further cultural remove on from Australia; and hence Craig Nichols becomes caught up in the romantic myth of the rock n roll ‘star’ in a band because that’s what he reads alongside the music, while Cornelius finds himself caught up in pure sound and imagery shorn of mythology. The back cover of his first album to reach a western audience, 1998’s Fantasma, is adorned with a photograph composed of multiple exposures of Cornelius in a room, playing a different instrument in each 500th of a second; Cornelius the culture junkie, the music addict, hungry to stretch his ears. It’s tempting to label him a dilettante, but in truth I believe he’s more of a naïf, albeit a very intuitive and effective one.

Fantasma ended by spinning its radio dial back through itself in a self-referential montage, the record’s own life flashing before its ears at the moment prior to expiration. Point begins similarly but in an even more abstract way; Bug (Electric Last Minute) is a short blast of disparate noise sources cut together; as the album progresses each of the sounds presented in the opening minute will be recontextualised and developed in full songs, from snatches of guitar, bass and glitch to fragmented vocals and musique concrete found sounds. Cornelius mashes sounds together like a child shaking a kaleidoscope mashes colours, but with a deliberation and precision that refute chaos. From a distance it is a confusion, a jumble, but up close it is sharp and perfectionist. Another View Point wallops driving bass and bicycle horn guitars, splatters pointillist electronics over the top and lets the handbrake off; midway through a refined American gentlemen announces “this is called a déjà vu experience” and a nick of acoustic twang sends us back to the beginning in earnest. Drop utilises an aqueous sample for rhythmic effect in much the same way as Orbital’s I Wish I Had Duck Feet, the sound of water not just present to add ambience but purpose. Tone Twilight Zone meanders through an early-evening forest inhabited by crickets and drowsy birds, gentle electronic rhythms and clicks guided by acoustic guitar, the context and content of equal importance.

Cornelius is obsessed with hidden detail; listening on headphones reveals dizzying usage of stereo-imaging, up-and-down strokes on guitar separated across the sound-stage. Pop the white CD tray out and find yourself affronted by an impossibly lurid street-scene hidden inside the back cover, as if an unruly colour-blind child had painted downtown Osaka with a rainbow. Even the clattering, guitar-abusing I Hate Hate’s drill’n’bass percussion and aggressive metal chords are decorated with beautiful hiss and blip. Still we’re nowhere nearer to knowing if Cornelius is an inventor or a serendipitous copyist; all of the sounds, textures and ideas used here have been heard before, just not all together and not in this order. Is he a popster creating art by accident; or is he making art out of pop by design? Does his intention even matter? The birth of the reader supposedly creates the death of the author and all that, after all.

Album closer Nowhere soundtracks a sultry, lapping tide with woozy lounge strings and trumpet, before closing with a piercing high frequency which gives way to a second of noise and voice before a huge piano chord which takes an aeon to fade-out, just like A Day In The Life. And then it becomes clear what Cornelius has been up to all along; taking all the things he loves and sticking them together as best he can. Which is what pop music has always been about. More rounded and less determinedly schizo than Fantasma, Point is a great album of delicious odd-pop made by a whimsically modest genius. From Nakameguro to Everywhere.

5/10/2003 11:19:00 pm


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005