Album Review: Ichiko Aoba – Windswept Adan

[Hermine; 2020]

Ichiko Aoba is truly the personification of slow and steady wins the race. She’s never gone for forced grand gestures, nor made any strides to awkwardly court international recognition. No, the Japanese folk wunderkind, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has simply and gradually amassed a serious following purely by virtue of being, in all seriousness, damn near the best at what she does.

This album’s predecessor, qp, catapulted her to newfound status, popping all the way up to the upper tier of RateYourMusic’s Top albums of 2018. In the time since, many discovered her earlier works, allowing 2013’s 0 to climb to the vaulted very top spot on the same site’s list for its year.

All that being said, despite it being her seventh album, アダンの風 (Adan no kaze) or Windswept Adan, feels something like an arrival. By far her most ambitious work to date, Aoba’s hushed voice is still very (very) much the centerpiece, but her compositions have absolutely swelled into the ethereal.

While the deceptively simple beauty of, say, Vashti Bunyan was an apt comparison for much of Aoba’s music in the past, Windswept Adan opts for a much grander, more painstaking tapestry, verging on the ambition (and scope) of prog-folk, with some songs employing a string quartet, flute and harp alongside her acoustic guitar. With absolute, astonishing grace, she has melded her own blessedly quiet interests with the wonder and majesty of the greater world around her, arriving at the figurative shores of something akin to the magic and spirit of Kate Bush, albeit with a sound entirely, authoritatively her own.

Indeed, her concentration on Windswept Adan is absolute. In parts, it’s her most dense record without ever feeling busy, instead remaining ghostly and serene. This atmosphere is maintained through some simplistic piano ballads (“Parfum d’étoiles”), a cappella harmonies (“Kirinaki Shima”), and even ventures into ambient (“chinuhaji”). No matter how spare or bustling, each song feels something like an adventure. The watery visuals of lead single “Porcelain” speak to the way in which each track is a self-contained quest, each feeling truly realized and lived within, each separate and distinct, all while managing to feel cohesive as a full, textured journey of an LP. At all times, it remains bewitching.

While Aoba’s sense of melody has always impressed, it’s here that she chooses to fully flex her song-crafting muscles, displaying an ability for musical layering not yet seen in her more muted work. The way her guitar and string playing blends into an absolutely swelling mass can often be, quite simply, astounding. She also intertwines her own vocals more than ever before, with some tracks like “Easter Lily” and “Dawn in the Adan” finding passages layered to a degree so painstakingly perfected that it’s awe-inspiring.

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, but one thing is certain: you’re sure to leave these 50 minutes with a new sense of an already-beloved artist. To reinvent oneself, all while retaining an absolute sense of familiarity, is no small undertaking, and Aoba has managed it here with grace, skill, and fine-tuned precision. This is a music of currents, this is music so solidified within the mind that it is a veritable mass – while remaining delicate throughout. Windswept Adan is a landscape, an aquatic world to be lost within, and one from which you’ll scarcely want to emerge.