Owari no Hoshi no Love Song and Concept Albums

Owari no Hoshi no Love Song is available on iTunes as Love Song of the Closed Planet

Note: I’ll be using the Japanese-language titles of individual tracks on the album – mostly because that’s how I remember them –  but the Track Listing on the album’s Wikipedia article neatly translates each to their English-language iTunes listing.

As I’ve admitted before in my post on Rewrite, I’m pretty biased in favor of works done by developer Key Visual Arts despite and because of their tendency toward wearing their heart on their sleeve. A lot of that specifically comes out of Jun Maeda, one of the studio’s co-founders and perhaps its most prolific writer and composer. So when I heard that he had collaborated on a concept album with Nagi Yanagi – lead vocalist of the incredible J-Pop band Supercell for some of their strongest work – I was absolutely all-in on that peanut-butter-and-chocolate pairing.

To little surprise, the end result is something truly special.

Owari no Hoshi no Love Song starts off strong with what might even be my personal favorite track on the album, if not the most striking. Owari no Sekai Kara sets the tone of the entire album from the very first line with a saccharine lyric about finding happiness in togetherness, before immediately tanking into a tune with the heart of a ballad but the driving instrumentation of a more typical J-pop number.

Rather than being written broadly about some emotion or leaning into vague, flowery language, the opener is telling a particular story about two specific characters: a girl who leaps through time out of sheer jealousy (no, not that one), but botches the job so horribly that the male lead can’t evem recognize her, and eventually ends up ejecting both of them from their world entirely, forcing the two to wander apart between timelines seemingly forever. It’s the kind of thing that would make for great short-form science fiction (and is even framed as such in song’s illustrated motion video).

I’m going to be talking about lyrics a lot, so use these scans of the CD’s lyric booklet to follow along if you like.

Every track in the album will go on to follow this form, using the stock-standard two-verses-and-a-bridge-with-refrains structure to lay out a short story with a definitive three-act structure. All of them feature a male-female lead pair in some form of apocalyptic setting, and almost unilaterally they will end in tragedy for one or both characters.

Say what you want about Jun Maeda, but he’s really locked onto a story archetype that he writes well, and he’s probably written it in three dozen different published forms at this point.

Through they vary between the intense, energetic Muteki no Soldier, the rhythmically-recited poetry of Kōru Yume, and the lullaby-like quality of Flower Garden (collectively attesting to Yanagi’s impressive versatility as a musician), every track on Owari no Hoshi no Love Song expands upon the rest by applying a slightly different mentality to a shared subject. After Owari no Sekai Kara’s role as a pilot track, they start out decidedly dark and hopeless, heavily featuring the repeated deaths of their subject characters up through the halfway point. It isn’t until the eighth track of thirteen, Toaru Kaizokuō no Kimagure, that Maeda throws the listener something in the shape of an ambiguous ending, with the following Yuki no Furanai Hoshi being the first and only before the album’s finale not to take a fatalistic tone, albeit it remains slow and wistful.

Then, after a few tracks featuring spots of hope despite their fatal ends, Maeda spells it out in the triumphant refrain of Hero no Jōken as the lead makes a turn toward the meta-text, referencing each of the previous songs in turn as points of wisdom in his ongoing growth.

That’s right: the opening track doubles as a proper pilot that retroactively connects each song in the album into one, ongoing narrative.

It’s all connected.

Up to this point, the individual pieces have been functioning fantastically as self-contained stories and as songs – evidenced by how I’ve mixed many of them into other playlists for years. Yet when the listener is nudged to look back on them as a collection, they reveal this lovely arc where the stories start on a run of depressing tales before eventually clawing their way back up toward something more optimistic in spite of themselves.

Ah, what a metaphor.

Context is key here – the lion’s share of Owari no Hoshi no Love Song was written by Jun Maeda as a reflection of his own experience with depression, and that certainly comes through in the direct reading of each piece and how even the more open-ended stories resolve on some melancholic thought or admittance of resignation. And when taken on their own, none point in a truly positive direction, just as how there can be long stretches where each individual day feels like a bundle of misfortune.

It’s not until both the narrator and the listener widen their scope to look at the whole landscape of the collected album to see how the tone is, in fact, improving, and how each of them in turn informs the ending.

And it’s incredibly important to the ending that these stories aren’t framed as something to be conquered, nor dismissed as some low point to be moved past. They remain grim even after their passing, and even keep the protagonist feeling helpless within the text of the lyrics despite himself. To borrow another’s words, pain demands to be felt.

But it also doesn’t have to be the end-all.

That thought is encapsulated so well by Kono Hoshi no Birthday Song, which is what makes it such an ideal epilogue to Owari no Hoshi no Love Song (aside from how their titles mirror each other in structure and premise). Following the forward-facing Hero no Jōken, we get a resolution set in a more idyllic end-of-days scenario, with the protagonists firmly set on moving forward in spite of certain hardship. It’s a bit trite for a dark set of stories swing toward the idealistic in their final sections, but after a dozen other vignettes with genuinely melancholic or even fatal conclusions, having the last track of them all end in this way feels more genuinely earned than any individual piece on the album could accomplish.

Now, you can still read some problems in the meta-text of the album; the whole thing was born from a man reaching out to a woman to collaborate on an album where every track is explicitly about a couple, underscored Maeda’s own admittance that Yanagi acted as something of a “ray of hope” during his depression. That can read as either very sweet or a bit obsessive depending on how charitable you feel toward him.

But that same view of the album as a whole and complete package is what makes it so strong and gives it meaning beyond “a bunch of J-Pop numbers with sad lyrics”.

Now, this album is hardly alone in what it’s setting out to accomplish – concept albums have been around since the days of Woody Guthrie and Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd’s The Wall is a markedly more prominent example, and there’s a whole history of this style of album evolving into new genres like Rock Operas. What Owari no Hoshi no Love Song does is take that idea and spin it with the kind of storytelling that anime is rife with – sometimes-sappy, often-melodramatic, but thoroughly-earnest episodes about well-meaning characters, coupled with an reflection on something more intimate – in this case, coming to terms with one’s own emotional health.

Perhaps that’s another strength of telling this kind of story through music – that you can choose to examine it down to its bones and really ponder its themes, or you can just listen to Muteki no Soldier because you think it sounds cool. It’s a broad and layered enough album to facilitate both readings.

And on both levels, it’s a painfully strong collection of music.

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