Review: "Sonderlust" by Kishi Bashi
Music: 0.8/1, Lyrics: 0.6/1, Lasting impact: 0.6/1
Amplify score: 2/3
According to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, “sonder” is the realization that other people who play as mere extras in the film of your life have lives of their own– complicated and messy and rich and as important as your own. It’s a feeling akin to that of flying over a city at night and thinking to yourself that each tiny dot of light thousands of feet below represents at least several people and that somewhere among their vast array someone else may very well be looking up at your airplane and coming to the same realization. It’s a complicated emotional mix of poignancy, insignificance, and profundity all at the same time. It’s the same feeling you get while listening to Kishi Bashi’s latest record, Sonderlust.
There’s something different about orchestral-pop artist Kishi Bashi’s new record. The first thing you notice is the instrumentation– the album doesn’t start with the usual violin improvisation, but with retro sounding synthesizers, twinkling into clarity before the rest of the band comes in. The sound is still distinctly Kishi Bashi, but it’s a more fully fledged shade of his music that he previously only offered glimpses of on 2014's Lighght. There’s a certain dream-poppiness to Sonderlust, and while Kishi Bashi tends to shy away from darker hues in his songwriting, this record sees him going all in, exploring themes of heartbreak, loss, and longing.
Musically, Sonderlust sounds like a melancholy 70s disco album plunged into the digital freneticism of the 2010s. In an interview with NPR, Kishi Bashi noted that when writing for this record, he actually relied mostly on a music software called Ableton, a popular software for electronic music producers and DJs, rather than his go-to violin and loop pedal combination. Though most of the song ideas for the album started in Ableton, the songs were actually recorded by live musicians, with Kishi Bashi playing many of the synthesizers himself. A group of string musicians played many of the string parts on the album while Kishi Bashi conducted.
The lyrical themes on this album stand in sharp contrast to Kishi Bashi’s past work as well. “Can’t Let Go, Juno” offers some of the album’s first insights into the personal hardships he faced last year that led him to write Sonderlust: “And every time my phone lights up / My heart keeps skipping enough to give up / You know the better days still remain / Can I be insane forever?” These themes are echoed on other songs such as “Statues In A Gallery” and “Ode To My Next Life,” hinting at a lost love, as he sings in “Statues In A Gallery”: “And every day, every song / Makes it alright even though it’s gone / Oh, lover / Part of me I gave it to you.” These lyrics are much more straightforward and open than the poetic verses heard on Lighght, but their transparency seems to be better suited for the more accessible pop feel of Sonderlust.
Though die-hard fans may miss elements of his usual bright orchestral pop, Sonderlust is a must-hear album, revealing a rarely heard side of Kishi Bashi’s music and displaying his versatility as an artist. The strings that made his earlier albums stand out are still there, but they appear less frequently in favor of a more full band sound. Sonderlust may not deliver on quite the level that 2014’s Lighght or 2012’s 151a do, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is a very different album from Kishi Bashi’s previous releases. While it’s not quite the music you would blast in the car with the windows rolled down, Sonderlust stands on its own, a beautifully complex yet approachable album, a passing stranger in a growing discography that would gladly introduce itself given the chance. Sonderlust is available for streaming on NPR now and releases everywhere on September 16th.