(City Slang / Sooper Records)
Add date: 11.7.2023
Release date: 11.3.2023

Apple Music
City Slang
Official Website
Sooper Records

When Sen Morimoto was a child, he walked through the New England forest that surrounded his home almost every day. On one trip, he absentmindedly became lost and happened upon a massive rock. With no smartphone to take a photo on, and desperate to show his friends his new discovery, he tried again and again to find the boulder, but had no idea how he’d got lost and stumbled upon it. “Once I gave up, I started coming across the rock every once in a while when I wasn’t paying attention to the path,” he remembers. This concept of ceding control and surrendering to unpredictability forms the basis of his song “Surrender,” and can be applied at large to his revelatory new album, Diagnosis.

Based in Chicago, Morimoto has released two albums – 2018 debut Cannonball! and a 2021 self-titled follow-up – via his own Sooper Records, building an experimental DIY community in the city that’s seen him collaborate with KAINA, NNAMDÏ and Lala Lala. Mixing jazz training with rapping and experimental musical flourishes, he has developed a signature sound that is also constantly evolving. Across Diagnosis, he wears many different hats while maintaining a core ethos and distinctive voice. On opener “If The Answer Isn’t Love,” he smoothly croons across jazz-inflected pop, while its title track sits on a thrilling edge between rapping and soulful singing.

Signing to City Slang for the co-release of his third album alongside Sooper came at a time of fundamental changes for Morimoto – both in real world terms, and regarding his perspective on them. Exhausted by the financial realities of being a full-time musician in the current age, and wary of the music industry’s wont to exploit the personal trauma of artists for commercial products, the idea of quitting was at the forefront of his mind.

But, he thought, what good would quitting do? “So I did the only thing I knew how to,” he says. “I wrote it all down.”

Through a global pandemic, swirling thoughts of defeatism and intermittent waves of inspiration, he interrogated these questions thoroughly and uncomfortably, radically transforming his own music and lyrics while almost unknowingly doing vital work on himself – and how he can impact the world – in the process. On Diagnosis, he sings of childhood, American identity, nostalgia and the insidious nature of late stage capitalism. All of it, Morimoto realized, pointed towards a fundamental change in his thoughts around how his music can intersect with his outlook on life and society, and that the two don’t have to be in direct competition with each other.

“I did choose music as a life path that I rely on to survive, both monetarily and spiritually,” Morimoto says. “Those opposite ends were battling internally for a long time. I had already come to terms with the idea that I don't have the answer to that question: how do you pursue art and express yourself under capitalism without exploiting yourself along the way? I just started feeling like I have to trust that my intentions are good, and that I'm looking for ways to make positive changes in whatever space I hold. I had to come down a notch and be like, ‘Okay, I just love doing this. I have good intentions, I'm going to try my best to put my best foot forward and try to create good spaces for music or art for audiences to come together.’”

With mental health discourse and public discussions of artists’ trauma teetering between serving as positive forms of expression and becoming dangerous, exploitative selling points, the true and just recipient of your ire should be the systems themselves. Through writing introspectively on past albums, Morimoto set the groundwork to write Diagnosis from a different perspective.

He says: “I spent two records – or my whole young adult life, really – making music that was really introspective. I always felt that it was almost a diary entry, or a way to express what I was feeling so that I didn't have to carry it on me all the time. I've now exhausted that pathway to the point that, at this current juncture in my life, I feel like I understand myself enough to turn the lens around. I wanted to investigate those same questions, but outwardly towards the systems that govern us and to society at large.”

Letting go of larger thoughts around the purpose of his art – ‘What can this thing that I love do that is positive? Is it just purely a selfish endeavor? Is this taking up space that it shouldn't?’ – Morimoto tried, as much as possible in the current climate, to take himself less seriously and think about how his music, practices and outward-facing interactions can impact his friends, collaborators and community on a small scale. Not coincidentally, he arrived at the end of the process with an album that is his most impactful in its meaning, both on a personal and societal level.

Musically, Diagnosis is also a revelation. The 12 tracks here skip between funky, bright jazz-pop ("Bad State"), intricate guitar-based tracks with a Radiohead feel (“What You Say”) and orchestral wonderlands “Forsythia (レンギョウの旋律)". Highlight “Pressure On The Pulse,” meanwhile, is a devastatingly intimate, quiet song that then explodes into an exuberant, animated whirlwind of sax and drums. A chameleonic figure at the album’s core, he can rip out a sax solo, dive deep into intimate singer-songwriter territory and lead massive, roaring alt-pop songs with equal aplomb.

To record the album, Morimoto headed to a studio for the first time, working at Chicago’s Friends Of Friends and drafting in members of his community to flesh out the songs. Diagnosis was engineered by Brok Mende, with Ryan Person on drums, Michael Cantella contributing bass and KAINA on backing vocals.

Through these production tweaks and changes in his songwriting process, Diagnosis signals a spreading of Morimoto’s musical wings, while also sharpening his focus and presenting more of a signature voice; it’s his most wide-ranging album, but also his most considered, and a stunning progression from the self-titled record. Diagnosis is also a perfect encapsulation of the disparate influences that were poured into it. Morimoto describes his musical reference points for the album as “equal parts Funkadelic and Dinosaur Jr.,” and while these touchpoints can be heard all over the record, it doesn’t feel beholden to them, instead using their inspiration before moving beyond it.

The songs’ lyrics, meanwhile, zoom in on specific situations through which Morimoto crafts the album’s larger narrative. On “Forsythia (レンギョウの旋律)”, he uses the imagery of the tree which grew outside his house as a child in Japan to bask in the satisfaction of the greater self-understanding he possesses now as opposed to back then. “Pain,” meanwhile, discusses the scars that trauma and wounds can give us, while acknowledging that the vulnerability these experiences can bring ultimately lead to healing and greater self-understanding. Once again mixing the personal with the societal beautifully, the idea of the track came to Morimoto after he watched a QAnon documentary. Elsewhere, “Naive” concerns nostalgia’s ability to distort and simplify memories.

“I was just writing songs, and feeling this way about the world,” Morimoto says of his process. Without fail, though, he’ll end up with a body of work and, upon reflection, realize: ‘Oh my God, all my songs are about this!" Through this creative process, the meaning of the album unfurled itself to the artist: there is so much that we want to control but are simply unable to, and surrendering to the truth and embracing being uncomfortable becomes the only path forwards. “Even if I tried to make the poppiest, most fun, romantic album, I might have ended up here anyways,” he reflects of the journey of making Diagnosis.

Though the product of one man’s internal reckoning, Diagnosis can – and should – prove a larger blueprint for others. It’s a guide with which to release your anger and understand yourself and the world a little better, all while freely admitting to possessing no concrete answers to the existential questions that plague our everyday.

This anger can still exist inside of you and prove useful, but it’s best when channeled towards the right recipients, through helping your community, and into great art. Diagnosis stands as a testament of this, and acknowledgement for Morimoto and others that, in order to find true meaning, you have to stop fighting the feeling and let it flow.