Cocco’s major debut single from 1997, “Count Down,” is a heavy monster of a song that threatens a man who spurned the singer-songwriter. An unsettling, ticking drumbeat gives way to grungy guitar explosions as Cocco details the ways she will beat up the traitor, leaving him licking her toes and begging for forgiveness. The song ends with her counting down before she shoots the man, but we never get to find out his fate.
This would’ve been a bold song to release in the United States, where Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” was controversial and punk pianist Amanda Palmer’s “Leeds United” video was nearly censored because Roadrunner Records thought the artist didn’t look sexy enough. That the album containing it, Bougainvillea, was a top 40 hit and the artist herself would eventually have a number one record in the notoriously conservative Japan are even more remarkable.
Not to make Cocco sound like a shock value artist merely trying to push the envelope. Rather, she’s someone who writes music to exorcise her emotions. Listen to her music or read her lyrics and you’ll recognize those demons deep inside yourself, hidden under layers of social norms and self-censorship. Speedstar Records deserves credit for signing Cocco and letting her release this music and wear plain dresses and no makeup.
Cocco’s lightened up over the years, but her 1997 debut album Bougainvillea is still a watershed. It’s her darkest, most lyrically direct recording, and it established Cocco as an artist who could wield a variety of genres and still put together a cohesive album. “Kubi” opens with a rising, dissonant violin solo before Cocco cuts in, her voice distorted as she wails about her conflicting emotions over the termination of a long relationship. “Rain man” is a pained lullaby sung in competent English, while “Nemureru Mori no Oujisama~Haru*Natsu*Aki*Fuyu~” is a crushing rocker that leaves even the singer herself panicked and gasping for breath by the end. “Gajumaru no Ki” has serious lyrics about feeling out of control and aimless as an adult, but it’s played as a major key children’s song. “Somebody, stop me/put me down/and bind me to that tree/somebody, please stop me/tie me to that tree so tight/when the morning comes/Am I still gonna be alive?” Cocco sings over the sound of a marimba and recorder.
Bougainvillea also tackles a variety of lyrical subjects fantastically. “Isho,” a sparse song in which Cocco asks her lover to kill her if she ever becomes brain dead, is so haunting it reportedly brought X Japan guitarist Hide to tears. On the other end of the spectrum, the upbeat “Sing A Song~No Music, No Life~” builds off “No Smoking” signs into an anthem for creative expression, complete with cute doodles to accompany the lyrics. (If the subtitle sounds familiar, Tower Records adopted it as the permanent slogan for its Japan stores and used it occasionally in the U.S.)
Though emotional music can fall flat with the wrong singer, Cocco has the perfect expressive voice for her work. Her tone quality is crisp and pure, and her range is capable of everything from a ghostly whisper to freakout scream. But Cocco understands efficiency, and she can convey a large scope of feelings through subtle changes in color or by adding a slight spit or fragile quiver. Even at her most tender moments, Cocco always has a detectable chilliness to her singing, adding to the depth of her songs. But most important, she sounds authentic. You could spend hours dissecting the inflections in her singing, and yet none of them comes off calculated.
I don’t agree with the cliché “Music is a universal language” because some layers get lost when you don’t understand the lyrics. (And cultural context, and the rhetorical devices within the songs, and so on.) Most of Cocco’s CDs, Bougainvillea included, come with decent English translations, but I’m sure the listening experience is far more intense for someone who knows what the songs are about without having to grab the lyric booklet. But even with this handicap, Bougainvillea is still a profound experience. The emotion in Cocco’s singing, the crunchy guitars, and the turbulent drums are instantly recognizable and relatable. Cocco’s music isn’t just about herself, it’s about the humanity inside all of us.
English lyrics taken from the Bougainvillea lyric booklet. Translation by Kazuomi Kajihara and Toni Pedecine.