One of our heroes dropped a new album on Friday. Ryuichi Sakamoto is out with a soundtrack to an episode from Black Mirror’s fifth season entitled Smithereens.
I won’t ruin it for you. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy the episode’s exploration of the tension between analytics and intuition, between data-rich corporations and traditional police work and the questioning of personal tech that Black Mirror does so well. Suffice it to say that it is a tightly wound 70 minutes.
Sakamoto’s 35-minute collection of 19 incidental pieces pairs some of that same nervous energy with meditative ambient work required by the storyline. Like a lot of albums of this nature, many of the pieces are short. Except for the disc’s opener, everything runs three minutes or less.
A common complaint with soundtracks is that this brevity, along with the decontextualization of the music, makes for an uneven listen. Sakamoto’s film and television projects seldom suffer from that sense of disconnectedness.
That opener, entitled “meditation,” is very much what the title suggests. It is featured prominently in the episode – identified as “Unknown Artist; Unknown Album.” What might be a throwaway new-age drone in a less imaginative artist’s hands is instead another in a long line of small Sakamoto masterpieces. It’s one of the best new traditional ambient pieces we’ve heard in years.
The two-part “this is my last day” is another highlight. They are the sort of simple, piano-led new classical pieces that Sakamoto excels at. Their importance to the program’s story only adds to the impact.
The album also features a number of dramatic turns. Among the most vivid is “car crash.” The piece begins on a gentle ambient note, which is abruptly interrupted by the sound of the accident itself. The screaming car horn morphs into another ambient drone, this one darkly traumatic.
That transition, from found sound (car horn) to composed sound (drone) is another example of Sakamoto’s extraordinary attention to detail. He is one of the great artists of our time. And it would seem that since recovering from throat cancer, his work has taken on an entirely new degree of gravity.