For the past couple of Persona games, composer Shoji Meguro has mostly relied on vocal-based pop music to convey the tones and underlying messages of those titles. It works wonderfully, and it’s no surprise why the soundtracks of those respective games were so well-received. With Persona 5, however, Meguro delves into a genre that hasn’t really been seen in the series before: jazz.
Jazz just so happens to be one of my least favorite genres of music (I only ever truly enjoyed that jazz pop fusion bit introduced by John Legend’s character in La La Land), but Meguro has once again worked his composing magic to deliver another compelling video game soundtrack. With a few damning shortfalls here and there.
I believe the last time Meguro tried his hand at the jazz genre was in the Reincarnation album for Persona 3. It’s a very small selection of tracks, and obviously they all sound largely the same as their original counterparts, but were each given an upbeat piano track to go along with the base song. Those remixes were fine, and only helped to pump those already poppy tracks up to 11. They sounded synthesized, though, and failed to make any sort of lasting impression on the listener. It’s easy to see why the Reincarnation album had such a small pool of music, and didn’t end up being all that popular in the long run. With Persona 5, Meguro is finally given a whole game’s worth of material to work with and truly stretch his legs to see what he can do with this curious genre.
Persona 5 opens with Wake Up, Wake Up, Get Out There, which in itself is an iteration of the fantastic theme, Life Will Change. The keyboardist goes nuts in this one, and I can’t think of a better song to use for your daily morning alarm. The energy is palpable in both of these songs and, as you’ll soon observe as a trend in the Persona 5 soundtrack as a whole, it’s just so darn smooth. It’s easy to picture the game’s opening movie where the characters slide across the cityscape so effortlessly while you’re listening to this track, but it’s very much a feel-good song that you can enjoy just as much if you’re listening to it on its own as well. That’s precisely what makes these two songs stand out so much in the soundtrack – a good video game track can work as background music in the game itself (as the instrumental version of Life Will Change does), but a truly great video game track is one that can be enjoyed both in and outside of the game.
100 points awarded to Meguro for this one. Wake Up/Life Will Change is such a good, catchy theme that will make your mundane daily life feel impossibly stylish. It’s not a full-on jazz track, but that blend of pop and funk makes it sound fresh and exciting. For a main theme of one of the hottest JRPGs of the year, I’d say it’s done its job.
A few filler tracks later, and we’re introduced to a song that players will hear for the majority of the game. Beneath the Mask maintains that same smoothness we were treated to in Life Will Change, but in a drastically different way. Unlike Life Will Change and Wake Up, this particular track is soft, mellow, and, as a result, incredibly emotive. The track plays whenever the protagonist returns home in the evening, and its slow beats make it a fitting lounging song to doze off to after a long, hard day at a school where everyone thinks you’re a delinquent.
There’s an instrumental version and a vocal-based version. Both work well in the context of the game, though I’d say the instrumental version is more easily enjoyed when you’re listening to it on its own. I often think of vocals as an instrument by itself to accompany the structuring of a song, and rarely pay attention to lyrics during a first listen. While Lyn Inaizumi’s voice shifts to a more subdued tone to fit the vulnerability of Beneath the Mask, I don’t feel it’s a particularly necessary addition that’s required to really drive home the vibes the song is going for.
That said, the lyrics of Beneath the Mask are very meaningful, and it fits Persona 5’s narrative themes wonderfully. Lyn sings of being a shapeshifter with no form, armed with nothing but a mask for disguise and to survive in a masquerade. It’s a beautiful plea to the listener not to remove the mask and expose what’s lying underneath. For a long time now, the Persona series has been centering its core message around the idea of learning to accept who you are, and the power of Persona itself being the ability to change your ‘face’ to suit any situation. The concepts are like two sides of a coin, and the lyrics to Beneath the Mask encapsulates that perfectly.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a rain instrumental version of Beneath the Mask which plays whenever you’re back home on a rainy day. There are no vocals, and the track is stripped down even further, with the piano tones mimicking the fall of slow raindrops. That kind of musical interaction within a game is rarely seen in Persona, and even in video games as a whole, so props for that added touch.
And then, of course, we’re treated to yet another series of filler songs in Persona 5’s soundtrack. Tracks like To Another World, Awakening, and Blood of Villain sound like they belong in a cheesy Saturday morning anime. Past games in the Persona and SMT series have suffered from similar tracks too, but it’s always fun to call out the bad eggs of the bunch. Awakening, in particular, is a weird mishmash of ‘hard’ rock and squeaking guitar riffs that try to sound epic because of what’s going on in the game, but ends up coming off as a little bit cringey to listen to. Anyway, the less said about those tracks, the better.
And after that, we’ve got tracks like Encounter and Days of Sisters that are more than decent but, for some inexplicable reason, are only heard once in the entire game. During my full listen of the Persona 5 soundtrack, I came across these two tracks, and realized that I couldn’t for the life of me remember when they played during the game. If you’re having trouble recalling these, let me help. Encounter plays when you first run into Ann, and Days of Sisters plays when Makoto shares a moment with her sister, Sae. Persona 5 doesn’t have character-specific themes, but if it did, these would be Ann’s and Makoto’s. It’s a shame that these hidden gems didn’t get more time in the spotlight. The tracks are far too simple to really be enjoyed outside of the game, and barely had any presence within the game itself. The tunes here could’ve maybe been developed into more complex themes, but they weren’t. Big miss.
In keeping with Persona 5’s jazz-pop-funk fusion sound, we’re also treated to two very well-done shopkeeper tracks that maintain the soundtrack’s overall smoothness: Layer Cake and Butterfly Kiss. Layer Cake starts off ominously with a bit of distortion (something you’ll notice in later tracks as well), before getting into a groovy beat that serves as a lovely musical representation of the gun store owner – a character whom you know is shady as all hell, but you can’t deny how unbelievably cool he is.
Likewise, Butterfly Kiss is a suitable representation for the shady doctor who sells you drugs. This track starts with simple drums, and it slowly layers on the melody with some sax and keys, before it finally dawns on you that it features a sample of the leitmotif of With the Stars and Us, and Swear To My Bones. More on those later, but it’s an interesting decision to incorporate that tune into a song for a character who isn’t really all that integral to the main story. Unlike Layer Cake, however, Butterfly Kiss feels weak when listened to on its own. It’s not particularly catchy, but it’s a very well-made piece of jazzy music that fits with its given situation.
For all of its talk of jazz and chill, lounging music, Persona 5’s soundtrack doesn’t start to truly shine until you’ve maxed out your first Confidant rank in the game or defeated your first Mementos mini boss. Sunset Bridge is one of my personal favorites of the bunch, and it’s easily enjoyed both in and out of the game. It holds special meaning within the game because it plays whenever you’ve completed a journey of personal growth with a Confidant. It’s meant to be sorrowful and hopeful all at once, with a genuinely beautiful mix of keys and soft drums. This, along with Beneath the Mask, is one of the most emotive and powerful tracks in the game. Just as Smile did for Persona 4, Sunset Bridge is the brilliantly composed theme of emotional release and catharsis that we get to enjoy in Persona 5.
But we can’t ignore the more obvious good stuff either. Oddly enough, I’ve found that the standard boss tracks in Persona 5 far outshine the popular ones like Life Will Change, which everyone can’t seem to get enough of. Perhaps it’s my bias against jazz music, but when you have straight up awesome guitar tracks like Will Power, Blooming Villain, and oh my word, Keeper of Lust, it’s so hard to look the other way.
This is what Meguro is best at. Heavy rock tracks that can’t stop, won’t stop making you feel like the ultimate anti-hero who kicks butt and takes names. The style of music here harkens back to the good ol’ days of mainline Shin Megami Tensei games and the even lesser-known Digital Devil Saga series, where every regular and boss battle track was a non-stop, pumping rollercoaster of frenetic guitar riffs that exploded as you pounded grotesque demons to hell and back. Meguro continues to perfect his craft here. Blooming Villain (with that killer bass track in the middle) is the main dungeon boss theme that does its job so excellently, it’s hard to keep your heart from pounding in excitement as the battle wears on. This track, as well as Will Power, is what I like to describe as a compromise between the harder, raw style of old-school SMT and the friendlier, poppier vibes of Persona. It’s a good mix of musical tones for both series, and Meguro balances them well here.
Keeper of Lust, though, is where it’s really at.
I had a harder time than usual identifying the hook in this one. Is it right at the very beginning, when the track just immediately yanks you by the collar and shakes you relentlessly? Or is it the first verse, where it settles into a comfortable yet intense rhythm? Maybe it’s right at the very end of the song, where the high-pitched strings get desperate before coming to an abrupt stop. Keeper of Lust sounds like it’d be right at home in any of the SMT or DDS games, and it’s been far too long since we’ve heard anything of this caliber from the talented composer.
Finally, we’ve got the ‘true’ main theme of Persona 5. Swear To My Bones and With the Stars and Us help to close out the game and its story. Like Memories of You and Never More before it, Stars incorporates familiar ditties we’ve heard all throughout the game and compresses them into a singular, powerful vocal-based track, including the little hook we were first introduced to in Butterfly Kiss.
And like the ending songs that came before it, Stars is a lengthy, 7-minute ballad that’s somehow just long enough for the player to sit back and properly reflect on the hundred hour journey they’ve just concluded in Persona 5. While I felt Lyn’s vocals weren’t a necessary layer in Beneath the Mask, they’re an absolutely essential instrument here. As all ending themes should be, this is a powerful song that packs a punch. The majority of Persona 5’s tracks are inspired by jazz, and Stars begins with a similarly chill tune before Meguro decides to throw some rock into the chorus just to mix it up a bit. The result is astounding, and by the time the song reaches its crescendo as Lyn begins to belt out the Japanese lyrics with such fervor, you realize just how moving the whole thing really is. Persona 5 couldn’t have ended on a more impactful note.
As much as I like to complain about Persona 5’s story pacing and the game’s bad habit of droning on and on about the same message with little meaningful discussion, there’s simply no denying that its soundtrack is a real piece of art. To say that its soundtrack is of the jazz variety would be a gross oversimplification. Meguro draws inspiration from the genre, and successfully melds them with what he’s good at: hard rock, and a dash of pop that every Persona game needs these days. There are way too many wasted tracks and misses here, but the handful of songs that are good are truly memorable and easy to listen to and fall in love with – whether in-game, or when you’re out and about, forging relationships with your own confidants.