Album Review: CHAI – WINK

[Sub Pop; 2021]

Their irresistible charm may belie the fact, but CHAI are a restless bunch. Define them? Certainly not, thank you very much. As the Japanese foursome took the indie world by storm, just how punk they were arose as a tiresome debate among folk too conceited to simply enjoy the joyous display before them.

WINK sees them all but ready to entirely leave that debate behind. To be sure, they’ve long had tendrils spiraling into differing musical arenas, with 2019’s PUNK seeing them dip their toes into several different ponds, but their third album sees them properly taking a plunge into waters foreign for them, with elements of hip-hop, house and funk interwoven throughout.

Right from the lulling, dreamy opening notes of first track “Donuts Mind if I Do”, CHAI make it blatantly clear they’re ready for new challenges. A 64-bit synth track? “Ping Pong” says why not. A tribute to self-care and health via “It’s Vitamin C”? An absolute blast. Hell, “Maybe Chocolate Chips”, complete with a steadfast Ric Wilson verse, is a better Drake-ian pop move than Aubrey himself has released in years. Throughout WINK the doors are open, and we’re invited to traipse (or, preferably, dance) all about CHAI’s new grounds.

Its gleaming surfaces weren’t arrived at overnight. Crafted at the height of the COVID-19 epidemic and ensuing lockdowns, not to mention during the necessitated protesting and violence in the United States, all the combined worldwide strife and suffering led CHAI to desire to create something even more open than they ever had before. Leaning ever more into self-love and directing those feelings ever outwards, the band arrived naturally at the silkiest, smoothest music they’ve offered to date.

Their messages remain vital, as well. Lead single “ACTION” was inspired by the racial tension and campaigning for justice occuring in America at the time, and yet, despite being a charged protest song, it retains their charm and provides effervescent danceability with house-like production. Although they are reaching far beyond their more typical homeland-based targets, their feminist, body-positive “Neo-kawaii” campaign hasn’t taken a backseat. Frankly, they needn’t even do much to represent those ideals beyond being their ineffable selves, but they still find time to “take over” and tell their detractors (in truly the best vocal delivery possible) to “shut up!” on “END”.

As ever, one of their greatest strengths remains being able to flip weighty, even grave, topics into some of the most irresistible pop songs being made today. Even in mellowing, they remain as defiant as ever. CHAI see no line whatsoever between taking on whatever issues get to them and being able to completely bliss out, and it’s this very energy that continues to make them absolutely essential. WINK is simply the warmest, most open way they’ve chosen to engage in that battle yet. To say the least, that’s saying something.