Kaoru Ishibashi, the man behind Kishi Bashi, has been one of the most upbeat guys making music since he hit the scene with his 2012 debut 151a. As a former touring member for of Montreal, he combined their whimsical energy with the violin looping techniques of Owen Pallett to create intricate yet cheerful melodies. He also just seemed like a genuinely nice guy, one who still couldn’t believe he’d gained a sizeable following and was humbled by the experience.
This makes it all the more heartbreaking to hear the somber version of Ishibashi manifested on Sonderlust. As the album’s website states, during the recording of the album Ishibashi’s “personal life was falling apart” and “he and his wife of 13 years had briefly separated and were struggling to keep their marriage together.” Yet while this statement prepares you for what to expect lyrically, the site also notes how Ishibashi seemingly developed a case of musical writer’s block when working with his usual tools of the trade: violin loops, guitar and piano. Without this instrumental repertoire that made 151a and its follow-up Lighght great, what could down-on-his-luck Kishi Bashi possibly sound like?
Thankfully, Sonderlust is different without being too much a shift from what drew many to Kishi Bashi in the first place. There is noticeably less violin and noticeably more synthesizer, but it contains as much pop energy as anything he’s done before. Take the album’s first single “Hey Big Star,” which isn’t too far off soundwise from the dance track “The Ballad of Mr. Steak” on Lighght. Only in this case, the former is a reflection on love lost while the latter is the tale of a dancing piece of steak.
This track kicks off a streak of synthpop songs on Sonderlust, where the tracks are unified by various bleeps and bloops but are distinguishable enough to form some of the album’s best moments. “Say Yeah” combines a simple melody with a surprising flute solo toward its end, “Can’t Let Go, Juno” is driven by a pulsating drum machine, and “Ode To My Next Life” springs to life with periodic explosions of sound. Interestingly enough, Ishibashi’s violin playing features on all of these tracks but, pun completely intended, plays second fiddle to all of the other instrumentation. It’s interesting to hear his instrument of choice only periodically appearing to play a few non-looped sequences here and there, but Ishibashi’s penchant for pop-filled melodies carries the songs regardless.
As is evident from these synthpop tracks, much of Sonderlust contains slight touches of Ishibashi’s first two albums, though they are applied in a subtle enough manner as to not make the album sound too much like its predecessors. The opening track “M’lover” echoes 151a’s “Manchester,” starting softly with Ishibashi using his most sincere singing voice. “Statues In A Gallery” contains whimsical noises that evoke Lighght’s “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” and shows that Ishibashi still carries some of Montreal influence with him.
There are of course some moments on Sonderlust that seem entirely new for Ishibashi. “Who’d You Kill” has a bit of a Belle and Sebastian feel to it thanks to a lounge-esque keyboard part and shuffling tempo. The closing track “Honeybody” is unexpected both in the context of Sonderlust and Kishi Bashi’s discography, finishing the album with an upbeat, vaguely tropical sound. The album does falter slightly though when Ishibashi tries to get a little too straightforward, mostly on the back-to-back of “Why Don’t You Answer Me” and “Flame On A Flame (A Slow Dirge).”
The other new territory for Sonderlust is in its lyrics. On 151a and Lighght, most songs had fairly abstract, playful verses with the exception of a few straight-up love songs like “Manchester” and “Q&A.” Now, just as you’d expect from the album’s release statement above, most of the songs concern heartbreak. Throughout the course of the album, you’ll hear verses like “all I want is one last chance as your lover,” “every time I hear the way she said it, I can’t let go,” and “before there were three, there was one – the loneliest of all the numbers.” These are some of the most direct lyrics in Ishibashi’s catalogue, and really hammer home that it’s a personal project. The album is of course bookended by two happy songs – “M’lover” and “Honeybody,” but there’s a whole lot of gloom in between.
In case you were wondering about the album’s title, “sonder” is a made-up word that means realizing every other person is living their own life’s story independently from you and is experiencing their own reality, so “sonderlust” would presumably mean the search for this realization. It’s a fitting title for the album, which combines the desire to reconnect with a significant other with a search for new musical outputs. It may not have the immediate pop appeal of its predecessors, and admittedly his violin-based songs make for better live versions than his newer synthpop direction, but ultimately it works. Sonderlust takes some bold new steps that take Ishibashi out of his comfort zone, which combine with old techniques to make an all-around strong album.