Album Review: The Japanese House – In The End It Always Does (Dirty Hit)
Let’s get one thing straight from the start. The Japanese House (the solo musical project of East London-based Amber Bain) has clearly never heard the term ‘difficult second album’. Even if she had, this record is less Sophomore Slump and more The Empire Strikes Back. Or, for those of you who don’t favour 80’s sci-fi, In The End It Always Does (ITEIAD) is the Paddington 2 of albums. Bain takes everything that worked on her first record, 2019’s Good at Falling , and expands on it – and the result 1 is an introspective, intricate and iridescent album that subtly interweaves acoustic instrumentation and electronic experimentation, creating a sound world entirely her own.
The record opens with a beautiful synth pad, before someone (I imagine it as Bain, but I’ve been wrong before) sits down at the piano and tests the tuning with a simple arpeggio. It’s a lovely human moment that any musician will be familiar with, and it sets the tone for the song to come. Spot Dog is the sound palette being set out before the painter gets to work. It’s three and half minutes before Bain starts singing – the rest is guitars, electronically altered voices, crushed drums, beautiful live strings. If Spot Dog welcomes you to the sound world of the record, Touching Yourself sets the emotional tone. ‘Picture your face / I want to touch you but you’re too far away’ is sexy, but sad – and the song really works. It’s upbeat, it’s introspective, it’s great. But it wasn’t until the next track that I was really, truly hooked.
Sad to Breathe opens with three pianos quietly vying for attention – melancholic, improvisatory sprinkles from the left are answered by a seemingly sampled guitar on the right. As a descending chordal pattern takes centre stage, you’re aware of these three parts dancing in and out with each other. It’s organised improvisation – eerily reminiscent of Bon Iver’s 10th anniversary edition of Babys at AIR studios – where the sound is both electronically strangled and unequivocally live. Make no mistake, though, The Japanese House is no copycat. She treads the line perfectly between nodding to her influences whilst remaining fully within her own sonic space. The descending chord pattern at the opening of Sad to Breathe is textbook Bain – major chords become minor, melodies refract beck on themselves, and when her vocals float over the harmony, you’re home.
It’s no wonder The Japanese House’s sound pays homage to Bain’s heroes – she recorded much of Good at Falling at Justin Vernon’s Texas Ranch, and collaborated with him on the incredible single Dionne on 2020’s Chewing Cotton Wool EP. Vernon is also a collaborator on In The End It Always Does, alongside MUNA’s Katie Gavin and the 1975’s Matty Healy and George Daniel. George especially has been a long-time collaborator of Bain’s: he produced Saw You In A Dream, among other songs, and has influenced Bain’s signature electronic sound since The Japanese House’s inception . 2 Although George’s musical stylings can still be heard in the electronic production on ITEIAD, the songs are a lot more acoustically minded than in Bain’s previous work: engineered and produced by Chloe Kraemer, this record lives and breathes through the interplay between live drums and guitars.
‘Cause you’re right / and I’m trying / to change myself, but it’s tiring’. Sad to Breathe is hauntingly beautiful – Bain’s vocals are accompanied by her trademark vocoder-esque backing vocals, and it’s stunning. Finishing the first refrain with ‘It’s hard to breathe the air when you’re not there’ the reverb holds you, and the instruments from the beginning are beneath you. And then, having lifted the sound for only a moment, where you’re in no doubt that you’re in for a sad, heartfelt ballad, the drums slam in and suddenly it’s an alt folk indie boogie.
The shift is simple but brilliant. It reminds me of seeing The Japanese House in 2016 at Scala in King’s 3 Cross, where she played both the Single version and acoustic album version of her then-biggest hit Saw You In A Dream, starting with the acoustic version before, halfway through, switching to the full
It was electric. This feels similar, but with more of an emphasis on acoustic, folky rhythm of it all. Much like Boyhood, the first single from ITEIAD, the emphasis of the groove rests in the acoustic guitars.
Despite this shift towards a more acoustic sensibility, there is a lot in common with Bain’s previous production aesthetics – there is an undeniable 80s influence to her songwriting style , which also 4 bleeds into the instrumentation of songs like Over There (a song which, if produced with electronic drums, could easily have been on Good at Falling). Another thread that connects this record to her earlier work is the emphasis on electronic experimentation, which is still very much a part of the sound – like in the half PC-music, half girl-next-door goodness track, Friends.
The heart of the record, in my opinion, is a track named Sunshine Baby which perfectly sums up the desire for a peaceful life, for easy love, and for almost cinematic joy, whilst also being reluctantly accepting of life’s circular rhythms. Home to a lyric that became the album’s title, Sunshine Baby feels like a wishing for the end of cycles, and speaks to a desire for freedom that’s long been part of Bain’s work. ‘Perform my stupid rituals / Everything is cyclical / Hold on to this feeling ’cause you won’t feel it for long…’. It’s the same feeling she sings about in Sad to Breathe:
‘Cause you’re right / and I’m trying / to change myself, but it’s tiring’, and before that, in Something Has to Change: ‘And you look back / You’re going ’round in circles / Your world feels just the same / Your heart keeps breaking in the same way.’
“The circle always repeats itself and life is just repetitive cycles that keep going. Life is about the new things that you’ve learnt within each cycle. You just keep going round and round.”5
Sunshine Baby describes that longing for freedom, all bound up in romance. Bain has long been a champion of the melancholic love song – but something different in this record is her use of language. Although she’s never been shy about being queer, this is the first time that Amber has specifically referenced romantic partners as ‘she’ or ‘her’ – and she does so in every song. Working with Chloe Kremer was clearly integral to this shift:
“I’d never worked with a woman or queer person [in that way] before […] It’s nice to have someone who completely understands your standpoint and shared experience.”
Every song on the record has a mix of acoustic and electronic elements – but the songs are tied together by more than their production aesthetics. The desire for freedom. The celebration of love in so many different ways. A sense of acceptance. This is not a perfect record – I miss the electronics forward production of Good at Falling and, at times, I’m left wanting a chorus like Face Like Thunder, or Everybody Hates Me – those huge 80’s-style anthems that made me fall in love with The Japanese House in the first place. But this is not Good at Falling – it’s softer, sadder, more serene – and in some ways, more mature.
One for Sorrow, Two for Joni Jones, the final track on the album, is personal and poignant. Bain talks about how she sees herself, how she’s evolving, and how much she loves her dog. ‘I wanna be free / maybe I don’t, subconsciously…’ It’s a profoundly moving song, centring on the realisation that things – that relationships end. So it’s a fitting finale for the record. Sonically, the piano reflections at the beginning of the song mirror the piano tracks in Sad to Breathe, and we are, in some ways, brought full circle.
Most of us are stuck in cycles – history repeats, politics oscillate, relationships end. ‘Everything is cyclical / Hold on to this feeling ’cause you won’t feel it for long.’ We’ll struggle again, and feel joy again, and when we’re struggling we’ll wish we were joyous, and free, and when we are those things, we won’t realise until it’s over. And then, just like that, the beginning comes around again. ‘Cause in the end, it always does.
1 my second favourite album of all time. Second only to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, which, if you’re anything like me, takes some beating.
2 George has ‘The Japanese House’ tattooed on his arm. Amber plans to get ‘George’ tattooed on hers.
3 This was the gig where someone brought an inflatable Lilo that was thrown around roughly from the first chords of Lilo. I took that Lilo home, where it hung on the wall of various London flats for 3 years.
4 Bain describes herself as a ‘modern-day, sadder ABBA’.