Shintaro Sakamoto clearly knows how to move on. As the guitarist and singer of Yura Yura Teikoku, the charismatic frontman spent just over two decades peddling his particular take on ebullient psych-rock before dissolving the band in 2010. On How to Live With A Phantom, his first solo release, there aren’t many traces of his former rock-and-roll pedigree – instead, Phantom plays as a post-global gumbo, a lightly-bubbling mix of Tropicalia, nimble funk, and ’70s smooth rock hits.
“In A Phantom Mood” is grade-A sunshine pop, replete with a lazy groove, hand-claps, and ooh-la-la-la backing vocals – but as offhandedly charming as it is, there’s also a sense of detachment found here that alludes to something much deeper. Sakamoto has stated in interviews that one of the main lyrical focuses of the album was how we reconcile trying to find happiness in the midst of general despair. It’s a neat trick – Sakamoto adds a lot of emotional depth to the listening experience by taking the schlock of “don’t worry, be happy”, and adding, “…even if you’re not.”
Elsewhere, Phantom takes a more direct approach in tackling this juxtaposition. “A Stick and Slacks” sheds the soft-rock gloss that’s present throughout much of the album, with lolling guitar floating thickly over sinuous bass and sparse, stilted drums. It’s one of the few tracks on the album that evokes the album title on a visceral level, conjuring images of a spiritual bathhouse, full of ectoplasm, steam and hot breath – more ESG than Elton John.
“Mask on Mask” is another highlight, finding Sakamoto in a full-on strut, complete with bongos and commanding horn stings. As with the rest of the album, there’s a degree of removal here – it’s a controlled burn, not a full-on fire – but the beat is insistent and sly, working your way into your feet and slow-twitch muscles. The song (and really, the whole album) is anchored by Sakamoto’s spectacular bass playing, which he apparently taught himself just prior to his solo release. It’s astonishing how naturally it has come to him – Sakamoto’s basslines wander buoyantly throughout Phantoms, gently nudging the songs and keeping them in line.
Unfortunately, excellent basslines can’t save the album from flagging in its later parts. The album veers a bit too far into saccharine territory – it’s always a fine line to walk when pulling from genres like smooth rock, and on songs like “A Gleam of Hope” and “Something’s Different”, the corniness of Phantom’s reference points shine through loud and clear. Still, though, there are far more hits than misses on Phantom, and the hits are pitch-perfect summer jams. It’s to Sakamoto’s credit that the album is as consistent as it is. In many hands, an album of this scope would be a recipe for disaster, but under Sakamoto’s direction, it’s surprisingly potent. Phantom is keenly constructed, full of smooth retro-pop gems, and throughout it all, there’s an underlying sense of sophistication that surpasses many of the original sounds it pulls from.