When it comes to describing the music of Ringo Sheena,1 the first thing that springs to my mind is a conversation I once had with an undergraduate Japanese professor. I’d originally dropped in for office hours, but we managed to drift onto the subject of popular music about twenty minutes in. Out of curiosity, my professor asked, Do you follow any Japanese artists?

Oh, of course, I replied.

Are there any you like in particular?

I’d have to say Ringo Sheena’s my favorite, I offered.

Ringo Sheena, huh? my professor said. She’s definitely… different.

It might not be the most rigorous assessment, but different is certainly an apt characterization of Ringo Sheena’s work. The fact that her music is often categorized under the loose banner of J-pop is, aside from a testament to how uselessly broad the term can be, perhaps a consequence of how difficult it is to really pin her down with a genre label. Even on her debut album, 1999’s Innocence Moratorium, Sheena took as many cues from grunge and swing jazz as she did conventional pop. She returned scarcely fourteen months later for her sophomore effort, Winning Strip, which added lots of strings and noisy electronics to the mix; it would go on to become 2000’s third highest-selling Japanese album.

In spite of her commercial success, though, Sheena didn’t seem interested in going through the motions of pop stardom. She scaled back her musical output considerably in the period following Winning Strip’s release, partly because she simply found herself unable to keep up with the demands of being a mainstream artist. After releasing a single made in collaboration with the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra in 2001, she went on an extended hiatus in order to have her first child. There were questions about whether or not she would return to music at all; worried that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill the terms of her contract, her record label eventually pushed her to put out a stopgap album of cover songs in 2002. When she finally emerged to record her third full-length solo release, tentatively called Wonder, Vulgar, Eccentric, she was insistent that it would be her last, and it wasn’t at all clear just how her experiences over the past two years would affect her songwriting.

The record that eventually hit store shelves ten years ago today is, at first blush, utterly baffling, especially coming from a woman whose songs had been putting in regular turns atop the Oricon charts. The name alone is enough to earn a double take: Its first word is a Dutch loan meaning chlorinated lime while the second is, well, semen. The album title will make you go huh?! in violent fashion, but please don’t dismiss it because of that, one iTunes Japan review pleads.

Indeed, it would be a shame to write off Kalk Samen Chestnut Flower just for having a weird name, because the album is a landmark achievement, one that weaves together the old and the new, the familiar and the exotic, the banal and the profound, into a rich fabric of sound that demands multiple listens.

For a grasp on just how much of a break Kalk was from Sheena’s previous musical vocabulary, a comparison to her music video for Winning Strip’s second single Gips is instructive. That song, and in turn the video’s cinematography, is built around the sheer passion that Sheena puts into her performance. In the explosive chorus, she virtually doubles over as she leans forward into the camera, shouting the English hook I wanna be with you as she slices at her guitar with a compelling desperation. Winning Strip is all about these moments of catharsis, as a quick listen to the album’s other two singles illustrates — Crime and Punishment opens with a resounding vocal cry, while Instinct soars off of a mid-song key change. And although the arrangements on Winning Strip display an impressive variety, there’s no missing the rock feel at its core; Identity is a straight-up riff-based guitar jam, for instance.

By contrast, Kalk Samen Chestnut Flower features a grand total of zero guitar-driven songs. Sure, if you go looking for it, the electric six-string is still there, peeking out from somewhere in the mix on almost every track, but the lead roles have been given over to a veritable profusion of other instruments, ranging in vintage from the quintessentially classical to the unmistakably modern. Album opener Religion kicks off with a thundering koto stampede, while Camouflage rides along on a jazzy double bass line, and Poltergeists marches to the tune of a mellotron backed by a metronome. This depth doesn’t stop at the surface, either; thanks in no small part to Sheena’s decision to produce the album by gradually layering individually recorded parts over each other, instead of gathering a whole band together to play at once, Kalk achieves a density that is enough to make one’s head spin. As Chad Van Wagner put it in his review of the album, It’s unimaginable that anyone could ever absorb everything in this smörgåsbord. And yet Sheena manages to keep the arrangements from overwhelming the album’s songwriting, lending it a sense of restraint, even placidity, that her previous work simply did not possess.

Here’s an example. Before Rush Job made its way onto Kalk as the album’s fifth track, it appeared as the lead song on the Acme Collection, a three-disc compilation of largely unreleased music from live performances put out in late 2000.2 In this early form, Rush Job is a fairly straightforward pop-rock number, built on a simmering foundation of electric and bass guitar. Sheena plays fast and loose with her lyrical delivery as she sings of disenchantment with the tedium of modern life, at times sounding like she’s in danger of losing control of her own voice. All of this amounts to a logical continuation of her style on Winning Strip, and considering that the Acme Collection turned in its own appearance atop the Oricon album charts, it would have been easy for Kalk’s version to be more of the same.

For what it’s worth, the album recording of Rush Job does kick off with the very radio news pastiche that Sheena had used to introduce the song on her tours. After those first thirty seconds, though, it promptly goes on to smash any illusions of familiarity. The rock instrumentation so prominent on the Acme Collection is gone, replaced with an orchestral arrangement contributed by Toshiyuki Mori. Strings zip back and forth, horn flourishes pop up here and there, and harpsichord solos mark the bridge and outro. Sheena’s vocals, too, adopt a calmer, almost detached tone, no longer trying to shove their way through the music but instead seeming to naturally float just above it. All of these changes serve to reinforce one of the few elements, opening samples aside, left intact from the original rendition of Rush Job: the lyrics. Juxtaposed against this new lushly orchestrated backdrop, Sheena’s declaration that she wishes to escape her grindingly mechanical everyday life by herself becoming a machine takes on an ironic, almost wistful, dimension.

Kalk is full of these small philosophical moments, but the true conceptual heart of the album lies, appropriately enough, in its central track. It’s not for no reason that Stem became Kalk’s first and only single, even if the song doesn’t sound much like pop material.

A bit of history is in order here. Sheena had completed an early version of Stem as far back as 2000, around the time of Winning Strip, under the rather unsubtle working title Sex. Now, this was hardly the first time Sheena had made direct reference to the erotic in her music; in fact, it was a pervasive theme for her. Queen of Kabukichō, her second single, is titled for the infamous red-light district of Shinjuku, Tokyo; and Instinct, which I’ve previously mentioned, has lyrics that are quite clearly descriptive of a night of passion — reach further inside me, Sheena cries in its chorus; I want to stay connected with you forever. Another song about sex would hardly have been a major break for her.

This all changed in the wake of 9/11. As Sheena found herself needing a way to express the uncertainty that the attack had brought into focus, she decided to put Sex back on the drawing board, giving it new lyrics and a new title. Stem emerged as a claustrophobic number, backed by dark, lurching strings. The effects of the song’s thematic reworking are especially clear in the first verse, where Sheena’s lyrics speak of collapse and ruin. This imagery, drawn directly from the destruction of the World Trade Center, illustrates a larger theme about the fragility of life, which she expands on in the succeeding verse with a horticultural analogy. Even the most lovingly raised clematis can, at the peak of its beauty, succumb to its fate in an instant; everything else we treasure, she implies, is no different. For Sheena, whose newborn son would have been no more than two months old on 11 September 2001, the words also express her anxieties as a mother: If we can hardly protect a plant, what makes us think that we can bear the responsibility of raising another human life? But she concludes that, regardless of how daunting her task may be, the only option is to move forward and seek what happiness she can, even if it’s merely ephemeral. I won’t cry or be confused, she concludes; once I stand, I won’t fall down again.

Even in the midst of such weighty subject matter, Stem does not completely excise all mention of intercourse; one prominent allusion to the song’s original incarnation remains in, curiously, the title. While the nuance is lost in the English translation, the Japanese name references an anatomical term for the penis. Here, though, the implication is not so much anything erotic as it is a figurative representation of the imperative towards reproduction as a mechanism for survival. The placement of Stem as Kalk’s midpoint builds on this metaphor: The penis is central to the male body, just as the propagation of human life through sex is part of humanity’s fundamental struggle to remain on this earth. The fact that it also mirrors the location of the word semen in the album title is certainly no coincidence.

This leads us to another remarkable aspect of Kalk: its coherence as a whole work. Leaving aside the allegorical significance of the record’s composition for a moment, it’s amazing that a collection of songs with such apparently divergent musical antecedents can come together to form a single, unified album. Where Winning Strip has a number of abrupt transitions and occasionally stalls for time on its way to a nearly hour-long runtime, Kalk is a far more compact record, clocking in at just under 45 minutes. Its generally more controlled feel, too, means that its slower moments don’t draw as distracting a contrast as its predecessor’s do.

Sheena backs up Kalk’s compositional unity with a thematic one, whose most obvious manifestation is in the album’s overall symmetry of track titles and performers. From the evidence, it’s pretty clear that balance is something of an obsession for her. With the notable exception of Innocence Moratorium, all of her studio albums, including the ones she would later release with her band, the Tokyo Incidents, have symmetrical track listings. Kalk itself carries, in its title, what Sheena considered to be an olfactory palindrome; both lime and chestnut blossoms smelled like semen to her. There’s no missing the fact that she abbreviated the album’s Japanese title as KSK, either. On the songs themselves, Sheena makes explicit references to several Buddhist notions, including samsara, the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. At the same time, though, Kalk seems to be representative of a spiritual journey that traces a linear progression underneath the cyclicality on the surface. Religion starts off with Sheena’s desperate search for something lasting to hold on to within the frenetic lifestyle that’s tearing her in all directions. Stem continues with her realization that, as transience is all that is certain, she’s been looking for the wrong thing all along. Funeral then concludes the arc of her enlightenment, as she ultimately comes to terms with her own inevitable demise.

Sheena’s decision to make Kalk her last solo album seemed to mark the end of an era, one that she would cap off with a non-album single called A Song of Apples (apple being a literal translation of the name Ringo) towards the end of 2003. Around this time, she also underwent cosmetic surgery to have a characteristic beauty mark removed. She would cheekily reference this change of appearance on the B-side mash-up montage Ringo Catalogue (A History of the Mole Era), which abbreviates the first five years of her career into less than five minutes.

Despite the fanfare, though, Sheena was hardly prepared to give up music for good. She promptly established the Tokyo Incidents with members of the backing band that supported her during Kalk’s live tour; the group would go on to release five well-received studio albums in eight years before breaking up in early 2012. A collaboration with Neko Saito came down a few years later in 2007, featuring some new material as well as rearrangements of older songs. It was clear that Sheena was itching to get a chance at making just one more solo record, and finally, in 2009, she finally put out a fourth album under her own name, entitled Superficial Gossip. Neither it nor any of her later work, however, attempted to build on the path that Kalk had laid down, instead hewing closer to the speed and spontaneity of her early albums. Considering the monumental amount of labor that went into making Kalk the album it is, an effort that was very much informed by the struggles that she was going through at the time of recording, it’s hard to see where she would even have started on a sequel.

I want to close by returning, appropriately enough, to Kalk’s final track. Funeral is a song that holds great personal significance for me, not least because it was the one that drew me to Ringo Sheena’s music in the first place. Surprisingly, given that it deals with similar ideas of death and impermanence, Funeral does not date from the same period of anxiety that motivated the rewriting of Stem in 2001 or 2002. Sheena, in fact, claimed that she had written the song at the age of sixteen, nearly five years before making her musical debut, but had held it back from Innocence Moratorium and Winning Strip because it didn’t feel suited to the tone of either album. Trust me: If you had pulled me aside sometime before I’d first listened to Kalk, and told me that I would eventually come to consider a teenager’s words about death to be some of the most beautiful ones I’d ever heard on the subject, I would have laughed in your face.

Funeral opens with a blaring hurdy-gurdy cry that immediately calls to mind the similar koto storm on Religion — but where Religion strikes an ominous descending tone, Funeral picks up with a brisk percussive beat that straddles the line between recorded and sampled. The steady rhythm mirrors Sheena’s newfound peace of mind; the woman that found herself drifting and unsure at the beginning of Kalk is gone now, replaced by one who is almost coldly prepared for her own passing.3 Now, I prepare to draw my last breath of oxygen, she states, without protest. But her lack of struggle isn’t because she’s given up on life; on the contrary, she has found the determination to continue on even in the face of the inevitable. If there’s no utopia anywhere, let us build one, Sheena calls out as a bold pipe organ swell rises behind her, the strength of her voice suggesting that she may well be able to accomplish her goal from beyond the grave.

With two minutes left on the album, Sheena strips away nearly all of the instrumentation to deliver her final thoughts. It’s only natural to despise the burden of being caught up in this cycle of reincarnation, she says, as if trying to comfort the listener; it’s been arranged that we’ll return to a blank page, where nothing’s yet been constructed. Yet Sheena also seems to understand that this is a necessary step; in order to continue on, she must release herself from her previous attachments and start again from scratch. Her last words are a simple request for one last moment of intimacy: Please, come and let me see your face, she asks, as Funeral descends into a spiral of noise. The organ, which had once broken forth from the mix, now struggles to define itself as fleeting snatches of earlier songs, representing memories of the past, flash before us. And just as a single instrument begins to emerge above the chaos — as one last realization becomes clear to us only in our final moments — the barrage abruptly cuts out in the middle of a bar, leaving only silence.

This life is finished; it’s time to move on to the next.

  1. It’d be nice if Sheena could come to some consistent judgment on how to romanize her own name — she’s used the variations Shiina (the proper Hepburn romanization), Shena, and Sheena on her record sleeves alone. In the meantime, I’ll just go with Wikipedia’s spelling.

    Fortunately, Sheena’s official Web site lists English titles for her songs and albums, which makes referring to those less complicated. ↩︎

  2. Well, almost live; Sheena was apparently dissatisfied with the recordings from her School Ecstasy tour, so the Acme Collection’s second disc is comprised of studio reproductions of selected songs. ↩︎

  3. I use the word woman to refer to Sheena’s narrative voice here, but for those who know their Japanese first-person pronouns, there is something to be said about Kalk’s prevailing use of the more neutral boku over the distinctly feminine atashi she had favored on Innocence Moratorium and Winning Strip↩︎