Feeling strangely fine

Imagine what would happen if Mandy Moore somehow managed to morph into Björk or, to use a parallel closer to home, if Hamasaki Ayumi turned into Shiina Ringo.

That would only begin to describe the creative trajectory of ACO. The Japanese singer started out as a young idol, but in recent years, she’s transformed herself into a daring explorer.

Her sixth album, irony, demands a lot of effort on part of the listener. It’s not just a challenging album — it’s a work that defies comparisson from the rest of her repertoire.

And that’s perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome in approaching irony. ACO, who distinguished herself from other idol singers by writing her own music, has always been a skilled melodicist.

When she offered that talent to such producers as Adrian Sherwood and Sunahara Toshinori, it yielded two of the most gratifying electronica-influenced pop albums of the early decade — Absolute Ego and Material.

irony represents a natural and yet drastic leap from those albums. ACO has dived straight into a sonic ocean of strange sounds, primeval rhythms and eerie vocals. She sets human strings against inhuman effects, and she pushes her voice to extreme ranges.

Her gift for melody is still present, as demonstrated on the lullaby-like “hans”, the fragile “Subako” and the tender “Kitchen”.

But it’s been obscured, rendered unrecognizable by a tapestry of floating textures. On “lang”, harmonics played on violins double ACO’s wordless singing, a pairing that’s both chilling and beautiful. Rhythmless synthesizers almost sound like they’re broadcast alien signals on the album’s title track.

The vocals on irony almost take a secondary role. On “Akai Shishuu”, ACO doesn’t start singing till half way through the four-minute song. On the opening “00000”, they’re rendered backward.

For long-time fans, the aural world in which this album inhabits is perhaps akin to visiting an alien world. The few beats on the album are delivered in spurts, and any hint of the sensual jazz chords of her mainstream work are missing in action.

But once the lay of the land is set, irony becomes a fascinating work. Much like Björk’s Vespertine or Radiohead’s Kid A, the album abides by its own internal logic, its own atmosphere. And the more you listen, the more there is to discover in such sparse surroundings.

ACO has delivered perhaps the most strangely beautiful album of the year. It may take effort to appreciate it, but it’s well worth it.