If nothing else, James Ferraro’s latest LP has a particularly apposite title. The eleven tracks that comprise this album are lean and stylish: a series of brief, well-crafted instrumentals touching down on a number of genres of electronic music, from hip hop to house to Chicago footwork.
Yet, just like its culinary namesake, Sushi’s collection of miniatures does little to coalesce into a coherent whole, instead constituting a fragmented mosaic of isolated musical moments. This album is a potpourri of different flavours and textures which is ultimately lacking in any sense of overarching design or narrative thrust: Sushi is high on style and decidedly low on substance.
It might be argued that this is an unfair criticism to level at this record. Ferraro has said himself that Sushi represents an attempt to move away from the “hyper-conceptual” nature of the rest of his back catalogue, emphasising that “I enjoy making music for people to listen to.” Certainly, this album is immediately more welcoming than the artist’s previous, often wilfully inscrutable, work. The short track lengths, together with the rather skeletal (one is tempted to say underdeveloped) song structures, lends Sushi an episodic feel that is easily comprehensible on initial listens. The textures employed throughout the record, whilst not exactly warm or comfortable, are at least clean and elegant: a far cry from the lo-fi hypnagogia of Ferraro’s early work or the nauseating hyperactivity of Sushi’s predecessor, Far Side Virtual.
Yet, it is because of, rather than despite, Sushi’s tempering of Ferraro’s past tendencies towards extreme obliqueness that this album feels so slight. The uncompromising Far Side Virtual worked precisely because of its ambition to constitute a challenging critique of modern forms of media consumption; indeed, its aforementioned tacky, over-bright production was employed dramatically as an integral part of this programme. But strip away the layers of “hyper-conceptual” rhetoric surrounding Ferraro’s work and all that is left is the somewhat vague and inconsequential musical vision found on Sushi: this music is embryonic and shallow, littered with hip reference points but devoid of any hint of a unique artistic identity.
Perhaps the problem lies in the binary thinking betrayed by Ferraro in his recent interviews promoting this release. In setting up an either/or dichotomy between clever-but-difficult (his previously “hyper-conceptual” work) and dumb-but-enjoyable (“music for people to listen to”), Ferraro seemingly misses the fact that a vast expanse of fertile creative territory lies between these two opposing poles. After this notoriously prolific artist’s long stay in the former category, Sushi does feel like something of a breath of fresh air.
Yet, this album’s seeming eschewal of depth and nuance of meaning leaves it feeling ultimately hollow. It hardly seems worth pointing out (although in the context of this record perhaps it is) but the idea that enjoyment somehow derives from vacuity, or at least that the latter is necessary for the former, is hopelessly misguided: Sushi is enjoyable but only to a certain, very limited, extent. This is a record whose impact is capped by the self-professed modesty of its ambitions: a disappointing release from an artist whose previous work has been so lofty, challenging and (on occasion) rewarding.