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CHAI Amanda Farah , September 19th, 2023 09:31

The latest album from the energetic Japanese quartet suggests 'cute' need not be antithetical to 'subversive', finds Amanda Farah

There has always been something mildly chaotic about CHAI. The Japanese quartet have consistently brought an exuberance to their slightly shambolic pop songs, an abundance of energy and a punk scrappiness. On their self-titled fourth album, CHAI coat a smoother sheen on their songs while continuing their crusade of relentless positivity.

What immediately draws you into CHAI’s songs are the vocals, the choruses that are more chanted than harmonious, with lyrics that shift between English and Japanese within the same songs. With these vocals still firmly in place, the subtleties of their arrangements on CHAI can easily escape notice on a first listen. But they’re there from the outset; album opener ‘MATCHA’ has a complex interplay of drums and programmed beats and keyboards layered in different tones.

Whereas their previous album, WINK, had some laidback grooves and opportunities to properly croon, CHAI bounces along at a high energy clip, honing a polished and effervescent pop record. This sleeker approach is felt on ‘From 1992’, the band’s warm acceptance of getting older that incorporates a nostalgia for 90s pop and a sparkling keyboard line. And while ‘We the Female!’ has a battlecry of a chorus – “We are mighty but feminine! / We are pretty but masculine!” – it also has sleight of hand guitar lilts and cheeky synth blips.

But it’s the joyous abandon of CHAI’s lyrics, even when they’re veering towards introspective or nostalgic, that define the album and closely connect it to their catalogue. CHAI first introduced their idea of ‘Neo Kawaii’ – the idea of being cute but not in a socially prescribed way – on ’N.E.O.’ from their debut 2018 album, PINK. They’ve further articulated the concept with ‘NEO KAWAII, K?’ calling for the judgement-free acceptance of bodies of all shapes, diverse appearances, emotions and expressions. Embracing the idea of being cute, at any age, opens you up to different possibilities. It invites silliness and fun rather than shunning it, and reveals a self-assuredness that is certainly part of CHAI’s magnetism.

But cute can also be subversive. CHAI’s ideas around self love and universal acceptance aren’t revolutionary, but when ‘felt cute, might delete later’ can be a defiant statement, and a blockbuster film about a doll is needed to explain the standard pressures of gender norms, those ideas are still relevant. Using cute though a musical vehicle of expression for those ideas is just as much of a radical act.