When I first got into Ichiko Aoba’s music, it was still somewhat difficult for me to find. I usually ended up either buying digital files from Ototoy or actually importing CDs from Japan. While that’s still necessary in some cases, most of her work is now more easily accessible—it’s on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, and she even opened a Bandcamp store last week.
With that accessibility has come increased popularity. I’ve seen more English reviews of her latest album, Windswept Adan, than anything before it, and subjectively it seems like she’s showing up more often in shared playlists and the like. Once we all begin venturing out of our houses again next year I wouldn’t be surprised to hear her over the speakers at a coffee shop.
One trend in those reviews is a presumption that longtime fans might regard this album as somehow lesser because it departs from the minimalist guitar-and-vocals arrangements that are her bread and butter. “Maybe some who have been following [Aoba’s] work up until this point will see this change of pace as needlessly busy or even a little too indirect,” says Anthony Fantano from The Needle Drop in his video review; “Whether Windswept Adan will prove your favorite Ichiko Aoba effort relies quite simply on whether you prefer her more understated work or this newfound sense of fragile grandeur,” writes Chase McMullen for Beats Per Minute.
In truth, I was worried that I wouldn’t like this album as much as Aoba’s earlier work—not because I’m a purist for the stripped-down arrangements, but I find her collaborations much less consistent than her solo work. Windswept Adan was made with composer Taro Umebayashi, and even though I enjoyed their previous collaboration on 「守り哥」(“Mamori Uta”) well enough and thought the advance single “Porcelain” was fine, I was still anxious about it.
I needn’t have worried, because this album is fantastic. My least favorite of Aoba’s collaborations either sound like someone else’s music using her voice as a featured instrument, or they sound like her own music but with someone else spoiling it. Windswept Adan makes neither mistake: it’s unmistakably hers, and the arrangements only complement the compositions.
I don’t want to understate how impressive that latter thing is. Aoba’s music is so delicate that it would have been so easy to overwhelm it by overworking things in the studio. It’s frankly amazing how well this all works given how dense it is compared to most of her work. Nothing is out of place. One almost imagines that arrangements like these were always silently accompanying her, and they just decided to turn the faders up this time.
I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of the track list, but I will say that I was surprised how little of the new material Aoba has shown off this year made it onto the album. Between social media, her “Choe” column on the &Premium website, various live performances, and a couple of actual releases, she’s put out enough songs to fill most of an album. And yet the majority of those songs do not show up on Windswept Adan—not even “Seabed Eden,” a single from just a few months ago, or the aforementioned 「守り哥」 which also features Umebayashi’s arranging. I’m happier getting new music than rereleases of existing songs anyway, so I’m not complaining. Maybe the optimistic take is that she’ll have another album soon that includes more of that unreleased material.
My only hope is that the success of Windswept Adan doesn’t mean that Aoba permanently moves away from solo guitar and solo vocals, because I still love that sound. (I doubt she will—the album release concert currently streaming on Livewire features plenty of it.) But in any case, I’m very excited to hear her add to her palette like this. I think she’s found an ideal collaborator in Umebayashi, and I can’t wait to hear what she tries next.