Nobody confuses art and pop quite like Ryuichi Sakamoto, who was an art star before he went pop. He began as a classical composer, then sailed back across the musical stream, along the way picking up the kind of film success that David Byrne might envy. Sakamoto acted with David Bowie in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; he even won an Oscar two years ago when he wrote music for The Last Emperor.

He borrows music from all over the world: India, the Middle East, Africa, and of course traditional Japanese music — which maintains a flickering half-life in modern Japan, coexisting with the more modern culture of the West. Like almost all Japanese, Sakamoto has traditional music echoing distantly in his ear. So when he launches his new album, Beauty, with ”You Do Me,” a cut that sounds like Michael Jackson strolling through a temple in historic Kyoto, he’s only trying a pop variation of something Japanese classical composers have done. For more than a generation, they’ve leavened their symphonic violins (or modernist squeaks) with the old-fashioned twang of such Japanese instruments as the koto or samisen.

Sakamoto casts his net even wider than that, though. On one of the tape and CD bonus tracks there’s a familiar American song, Stephen Foster’s ”Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” rendered into Japanese as a hybrid folk song and insistent soft rock (”Romance”). There’s even rock & roll: a 1967 Rolling Stones single, ”We Love You,” rearranged to sound Japanese.

The bewildering mix of material is paralleled by an equally bewildering mix of musicians, among them African poppwanna-be Youssou N’Dour, Beach Boy Brian Wilson, and New York avant-art star Arto Lindsay. It’s all lots of fun, but what does it mean? Maybe it’s better not to ask. The bewilderment passes, and the whole thing ends up sounding like the musical equivalent of a warm, slightly stimulating bath. Up from the depths of the tub flows cryptic language, some of it even English: ”The first girl, the last boy/Who saw who?”

Is that a haiku? Or is it just a dumb pop song? Forget all the imposing multicultural apparatus. Beauty ends up as pretty but empty, bimbo music on a grand scale — a long soak in delicious, tickling, restful sound, signifying…nothing. B

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