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Stray Sheep (Normal Edition) (Japan Version)
Yonezu Kenshi
Stray Sheep (Normal Edition) (Japan Version)
This professional review refers to Stray Sheep (Normal Edition) (Japan Version)

2018 was a banner year for singer-songwriter Yonezu Kenshi. On the heels of award-winning album Bootleg and his hit collaboration single Uchiage Hanabi (with fellow Vocaloid artist Daoko), his March 2018 single Lemon broke YouTube records as the most-viewed Japanese music video ever with 608 million views and counting – a rare feat for a solo artist in an industry dominated by pop groups. Instead of rushing to release an album to cash in on his newfound global popularity, Yonezu spent nearly three years to put together Stray Sheep, his fifth solo album. If Bootleg tracked Yonezu’s ascendance to pop chart royalty, Stray Sheep is a test of his staying power.

Stray Sheep features a total of 15 songs, six of which have already been previously released as singles. Fans who have listened to these singles religiously will not be surprised by the direction that Yonezu has taken. Mostly co-arranged by Yonezu and young songwriter Bando Yuta, Stray Sheep’s sound is fuller and more vibrant than the rock-driven sound of Bootleg. Yonezu and Bando seem to have made a conscious decision to incorporate more influences from other genres, including R&B, big band jazz and even traditional Japanese folk music. Running 59 minutes, Stray Sheep moves fast at an entertaining pace, rarely slowing down to breathe.

The new sound can immediately be heard in the album’s opening tracks, especially in Campanella (Track 1). The last song to be recorded for the album, Campanella is a fast-moving electropop tune with a strong R&B influence, giving an energetic start to the album. The retro electropop influence can also be heard in Placebo (Track 4), featuring Noda Yojiro, whose band Radwimps is often cited by Yonezu as one of his musical influences. However, Placebo is almost free of the traditional Radwimps band sound, embracing the new electronic influence that Bando brings to the table.

Like Bootleg, Stray Sheep features several "self-covers" of songs that Yonezu wrote for other people. For his cover of Paprika (Track 5), the award-winning song by children's choral group Foorin, Yonezu includes traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen and Japanese flute for a unique arrangement that puts a more mature spin on the song. For his cover of Machigai Sagashi (Track 9), the rock ballad that Yonezu originally wrote and produced for actor Suda Masaki, Bando and Yonezu reimagine the song with trap beats and autotune. Combining that with Yonezu’s superior vocal performance gives the song a fresh flavor that still maintains the original composition’s melancholy.

Becoming a household pop name also means that many of the songs in Stray Sheep are commissioned as commercial tie-ins. That includes mega-hit single Lemon (Track 8), written as the theme song for TV drama Unnatural; mid-tempo rock ballad Uma to Shika (Track 6), written for TV drama No Side Game; and titular track Mayoeru Hitsuji (Track 11), originally written for an energy bar’s ad campaign. These songs, all undeniably catchy and well-produced, signify Yonezu’s completed transition into a pop star. The one commissioned song that does recall Yonezu’s days with experimentation is Umi no Yurei (Track 14). The theme song for animated film Children of the Sea, the song features an arrangement that includes a fascinating combination of autotune and a full orchestra sound. The unusual clash of styles results in a beautiful, offbeat ballad that fits the sometimes-bizarre style of the film.

Stray Sheep has already been a phenomenal commercial hit in Japan, further cementing Yonezu’s status as a bona-fide pop star. The album will surely attract many new fans thanks to the presence of Lemon and other hit singles, but it’s hard to tell how Yonezu’s progression as a pop musician will be received by fans who have followed his work since his Vocaloid days. Nevertheless, Stray Sheep is a spirited and exciting album that shows Japanese pop rock at its best. With strong production skills, solid songwriting and a remarkable voice, Yonezu has surpassed his musical inspirations and truly come into his own as an important name in Japanese pop music.

by Kevin Ma

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