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Utada Hikaru


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, Utada Hikaru spent 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 - with a voice that's punchy and clear if slightly impersonal. What sets Utada 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, who can then compress them into unforgettable moments of pop perfection. Like Mariah Carey, Utada finds emotional depth in normally shallow musical formats, but is 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 the US), 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.

Japanese releases are under the name "Utada Hikaru" while US releases are under "Utada" or occasionally "Hikaru Utada" - fans usually just say "Hikki." (DBW)


Precious (Cubic U: 1998)
Working under the name Cubic U (representing "Utada to the third power"), Utada recorded an 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 the fledgling singer soon 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 later 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") - the unaffected, accessible manner wasn't figured out later. (DBW)

First Love (1999)
Utada relocated to Tokyo, 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"), it establishes a unique niche while crafting 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 Utada's most conventional, without the unpredictable melodic movement that would become typical, and even indulging in a half-step modulation, the singer's conviction sells the tune: the breathy and slightly off-key high notes somehow become 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 the debut and perhaps the singer's least rewarding album 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 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)
Utada's third studio album (not counting Precious) and by some measures the 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. Utada's voice shows hints of Tori Amos (though without the low high register), and as usual the melodic sense is remarkable ("Wonder 'Bout"). When the love-and-lose lyrics stick to commonplaces ("Devil Inside") the record nears the Taylor Swift "catchy but who cares?" category; more often, though, Utada 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"). Utada's 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 the layers of keyboards keep subtly shifting to create surprising contrasts ("Wings"), and the manipulations of song structure are similarly dept ("Kairo," basically 100% coda). That's how the album can flow 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 Utada had 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 the artist's 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. The 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 comes closer to singer-songwriter norms without diminishing Utada's 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 (the final recordings before a self-imposed hiatus), comprising the best greatest-hits extras this side of Original Musiquarium. The record introduces 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 Utada's life and work before age 30 ("Goodbye Happiness"). Even the Chistmas song fits the contemplative mood. As an artist looking back on a short spectacular career, Utada seems to be comfortable with what's already been accomplished, while also sensing that deeper truths remain to be uncovered. (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 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 a hallmark ("Automatic" is perhaps the least rousing concert capper this side of shoegaze, while one of the singer's most upbeat numbers is called "Goodbye Happiness" ), and remains so: Utada doesn't wallow in grief now, and didn't wallow in joy then. The bookending tracks illustrate the approach: 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 an unerring ear for melody ensures that catchy licks crop up in even the saddest songs ("Boukyaku"). Utada's 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 pulling back the curtain on an artist's creative process. Produced with Miyake and Teruzane Utada; Obukuro Nariaki guests on "Tomodachi." (DBW)

Hatsukoi (2018)
The title is Japanese for First Love, recalling the record-breaking debut, but musically and lyrically it's more like Fantôme II, a further exploration of sparse instrumentation and sorrow ("Nokoriga"). Occasionally Utada builds up to a big climax - "Play A Love Song" has a faux gospel chorus, while "Ōzora de Dakishimete" is a full-blown (though concise) suite - but rarely breaks the mood. The melodies are as lovely and hooks as catchy as ever, which is sometimes incongruous ("Too Proud," 808s and heartbreak with a rap from Jevon), but just as often wondrous (the singles "Forevermore" and the relatively cheerful "Anata"). (DBW)

One Last Kiss (2021)
A zero- (in the US), eight- (in Japan) or ten-song (in most of the world) EP containing the title single and several other songs Utada had composed for the Rebuilding of Evangelion film series. Later in 2021, Mys. Utada came out as nonbinary. (DBW)


Keep tryin'.

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