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Hikaru Utada


Reviewed on this page:
Precious - First Love - Distance - Deep River - Exodus - Ultra Blue - Heart Station - This Is The One - Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 2 - Fantôme


Born in 1983, Hikaru Utada spent her first fifteen years in the US before moving to Japan and immediately becoming a huge pop star. Utada generally works in a dance pop vein - drum loops and layered synths, with the occasional offbeat embellishment like harpsichord - and her voice is punchy and clear if slightly impersonal. What sets her apart is a knack for indelible melodies and an unpretentious honesty: It's refreshing to see a big international star without a self-consciously larger than life image: Utada comes across as a friend casually sharing the ups and downs of an ordinary life, except that she compresses them into unforgettable moments of pop perfection. Like Mariah Carey, Utada finds emotional depth in normally shallow musical formats, and she's a heck of a lot easier to relate to. After a decade-long run at the top of the charts (marred only by two unsuccessful attempts to break through in her native land), Utada took a break from the music business from late 2010 to early 2016; in between there was one 2012 single, "Sakura Nagashi," a 2014 husband, and a 2015 baby.

Generally speaking, her Japanese releases are under the name "Utada Hikaru" and the U.S. releases are under "Utada"; according to her record label, though, any future releases will be under "Hikaru Utada" regardless of market. (DBW)


Precious (Cubic U: 1998)
Working under the name Cubic U (representing "Utada to the third power"), Utada recorded her first album in New York in 1996; it wasn't released anywhere until 1998 and didn't make much of a splash. The single was a cover of "Close To You," but everything else was written by Utada with Charlene Harrison, and generally speaking it's less than original, less than satisfying R&B ("Lullaby"). Don't listen to this if you want to know why she became a superstar, but if you're already a fan there are a few points of interest: "How Ya Doin'" has the easy bounce and unforced melodicism of many of her mature hits; "100 Reasons Why" uses a passel of synth layers to create a slinky yet wistful atmosphere. And as a singer, Tween Utada sounds strikingly like Adult Utada ("Ticket 4 Two") - granted, she's always cultivated an unaffected, accessible manner, but even so it's remarkable. (DBW)

First Love (1999)
Utada relocated to Tokyo, started using her real name, delivered a couple of smash hits ("Automatic/Time Will Tell" and "Movin' On Without You") and then this re-debut. It's Japan's all-time best selling record, and while it doesn't hold up as well as Utada's later work (the trite uptempo "Movin' On Without You"), she manages to establish a unique niche while creating sugar-coated but digestible pop hits ("Never Let Go"; "Time Will Tell"). Small surprises abound: "Automatic" has a casual intimacy that's unusual for a dance track, right down to the distorted-yet-laid-back lead guitar. The fade of "Amai Wana" whips out not only Minneapolis-style chicken grease but also a Jagger/Richards callout. The wistful "In My Room" drops in funky piano vamps that fit right in. "Another Chance" uses guitar and synth tropes straight out of Hi-NRG. Though the title ballad is perhaps her most conventional, without the unpredictable melodic movement she normally brings to slow material, and even indulging in a half-step modulation, her conviction sells the tune: she gets breathy and slightly off-key on the high notes, which somehow she turns into a vulnerability-conveying strength. Arrangers include Akira Nishihira, Taka & Speedy, Kei Kawano and Shin'ichiro Murayama; produced by Teruzane Utada and Akira Miyake. (DBW)

Distance (2001)
After the previous record's success, the followup was sure to sell, and in fact first week sales of three million are still the highest of any album anywhere. However, it's a step down from her debut and perhaps the least rewarding album of her career to date. Instrumentally it's the same J-pop approach, with a few wrinkles like Spanish guitar on "Can You Keep A Secret?" There are bouncy dance tracks ("Wait & See"), slow love songs ("Eternally), and Utada's patented way of melding the two ("For You"), but the songs are distressingly drab. There are a couple of exceptions, though: the rocker "Drama" is surprisingly effective despite her subdued vocals; "Kotoba ni Naranai Kimochi" is a gorgeous, synth-heavy mood piece (again making good use of those off-key high notes). Utada produced "Addicted To You" with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Rodney Jerkins produced "Time Limit"; other arrangers include Utada, Nishihira, Kawano, Murayama and Yu'ichiro Honda. (DBW)

Deep River (2002)
This was her third studio album, and by some measures her most successful: opening with the #1 single "Sakura Drops" and rarely falling short of that standard. Though there are dance tracks ("Traveling") and ballads ("Play Ball"), the pace never gets truly fast or truly slow; the biggest departure is the mildly raucous "Uso Mitai Na I Love You." So what makes the record work is consistently catchy melodies ("Traveling") and a sincerity you rarely hear in something so commercial (title track; "Hikari"). Curiously, "A.S.A.P." replays the same Young And The Restless theme heard the year before on Mary J. Blige's "No More Drama." "Final Distance" is a remake of the previous album's title track. Utada wrote everything here, arranged with Kei Kawano and produced with Akira Miyake and Teruzane Sking (a pseudonym for Hikaru's father). Weird trivia: the physical CD I bought is miscoded, so when you rip it to MP3 the track titles and album information incorrectly indicate that you're listening to Distance. (DBW)

Exodus (2004)
Utada's first English-language release (not counting Precious), and though it was indifferently promoted Stateside it's worth searching out. Again, Utada starts with airy dance pop but mixes in a series of unexpected elements: the acoustic guitar/piano ballad "About Me" is garnished with industrial noises; "Tippy Toe" is carried along by rubbery bass synth. Her voice shows hints of Tori Amos (though she stays in a high register), and her melodic sense is remarkable ("Wonder 'Bout"). When her love-and-lose lyrics stick to commonplaces ("Devil Inside") she nears the Taylor Swift "catchy but who cares?" category; more often, though, she digs deeper ("Easy Breezy," winsomeness concealing a sharp edge). Mostly self-written and produced, though two so-so cuts were collaborations with Timbaland ("Let Me Give You My Love"; "Exodus '04"). (DBW)

Ultra Blue (2006)
A commercial disappointment, and I can't hear why: Utada manages to access more emotional registers than before, despite using an even more limited palette: synth dominates every track (guitars crop up just a couple of times), backed by electronic percussion so minimal it's demo-like ("Nichiyo No Asa"). Her voice - while always unforced, clear and accurate - isn't strikingly expressive or rich in timbre. Even the melodies are rarely mindblowingly original. But the pieces fit together magically, as she keeps subtly modifying the layers of keyboards to create surprising contrasts ("Wings"), and she's similarly deft manipulating song structure ("Kairo," basically 100% coda). That's how she can move from a joyous, elastic pop song ("Making Love") straight to a devastating heartbreaker ("Dareka No Negai Ga Kanau Koro") with perfect poise. The album cuts are as strong as the #1 hits ("Colors"; "Be My Last"). Meanwhile, "Eclipse" is possibly the best interlude I've heard since EWF were at the the top of their game. So masterful overall that the few lightweight tracks ("Keep Tryin'") seem like the work of an impostor. Produced with Miyake and Teruzane Utada (under his real name this time). (DBW)

Heart Station (2008)
A rebound from a sales perspective, though it sounds like a placeholder to me. The hits are memorable ("Stay Gold," with a gently rippling keyboard line; the luscious "Flavor Of Life," present in two versions), and some tunes have the blissful formlessness she'd conjured on Ultra Blue ("Kiss & Cry"; "Take 5"). But there's also a fair amount of dry, formulaic pop ("Celebrate"; title track), and nothing strikingly different (though the lighthearted "I'm A Bear" is a bit of a changeup). It's not that I don't recommend this album: it's that I recommend her other albums more highly. (DBW)

This Is The One (2009)
Utada's second serious attempt to crack the U.S. market, mostly produced by Stargate and Tricky Stewart, and while it didn't succeed in those terms, it's quite solid. Her usual pop love songs are unaffected and affecting ("Come Back To Me"), and there's continued growth: "Me Muero" makes sly use of boogaloo organ and flute in its sinuous groove. A couple of club-oriented numbers are fun if silly ("Automatic Part II"; "Poppin'"); otherwise, there's much more acoustic (or pseudo-acoustic) piano than usual, and far fewer synth layers: the approach flirts with Vanessa Carlton-ish triteness ("Apples And Cinnamon"), but ultimately brings her closer to singer-songwriter norms without diminishing her emotional force ("Happy Birthday Mr. Lawrence - FYI"). (DBW)

Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 2 (2010)
Unlike Utada's first singles compilation, this includes five new tracks (her final recordings before a self-imposed hiatus), comprising the best greatest-hits extras this side of Original Musiquarium. She tries on several new styles - loud drums and guitars on "Show Me Love (Not A Dream)"; nightclub jazz on Edith Piaf's "Hymne A L'Amour" - and somehow blends them into a cohesive, wistful examination of her life and work before age 30 ("Goodbye Happiness"). Even the Chistmas song fits the contemplative mood. Taking stock of her career thus far, she seems comfortable with what she's accomplished, but also senses she's barely scratched the surface of some deeper truths. (DBW)

Fantôme (2016)
If this were a debut album it's easy to imagine it being overlooked: lots of low-key, casually paced songs ("Hanataba wo Kimi ni") with a sharply restricted instrumental palette, mostly light drumming, piano and strings ("Ore no Kanojo"). But of course it's the long-awaited comeback of a J-Pop deity, so Utada's quiet confidence is understandable. As is the somber mood: from cover art on down, the album's largely a tribute to her mother Keiko Fuji, once a pop star in her own right, who died from suicide in 2013. And Utada backs up that confidence with a set of songs that don't initially bowl you over but soon work their way deep inside you. Subtlety has always been her hallmark - "Automatic" is perhaps the least rousing concert capper this side of shoegaze, while one of her most upbeat numbers is called "Goodbye Happiness" - so it's no surprise that she doesn't wallow in grief any more than she'd wallowed in joy previously. The bookending tracks illustrate her aproach: opener "Michi" is chipper and danceable unless and until you listen to the lyrics, while the wrenching ballad "Sakura Nagashi" (originally released in 2012) builds to an optimistic refrain. And Utada's unerring ear for melody ensures that catchy licks crop up in even the saddest songs ("Boukyaku"). Her influences are easier to spot than usual: "Manatsu no Tooriame" recalls the Carpenters; "Ningyo" shares a vibe with "Unchained Melody"; "Nijikan Dake no Vacance" (with Ringo Sheena) uses the hook from "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" as an interlude, Paradoxically, though, these touches only make the record feel more personal, as if she's pulling back the curtain on her creative process. Produced with Miyake and Teruzane Utada. (DBW)


Keep tryin'.

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