I’m continuing through the back catalogue of what I long thought was my favourite Ayumi album, or at least packed the biggest punch. However I really don’t remember it being quite as long as this, 15 tracks? As a result, what I presumably got mixed up as a “Duty” style short album turned out to be the usual 70 minute war of attrition that’s the bane of my track-by-track life. Still, it’s not all bad, and Ayumi really was on a roll at this point in her career.
Fresh off a career high-point with “Duty”, “I am…” capitalised on this success with another 2-million selling album, and a string of No.1 hit singles.
08 I am… – Memorable opening track, with an acapella intro and almost New-Age style panpipes and simple percussion. It’s an attention-grabbing but understated way to start the album, and sets itself apart from earlier albums that opened with a fast-paced dance intro. Things are a little rockier than we are used to, but the production never drowns her out. It’s really well balanced.
07 Opening run – OK maybe we do get a dance intro, a little delayed but it’s here. A mini-burst of excitement, but less Hi-NRG dance than previous album intros, it sets the scene with a rockier sound than normal.
10 Connected – Well I don’t know what’s going on now, we are into a fantastic early-00s trance number, with Ferry Corsten on production duties. It’s a real oddity in her singles canon, with an anime video that doesn’t feature Ayumi at all, it’s almost like those random Youtube clips where people set anime or movie footage to their favourite songs. I love this trance sound, I always have, and Ayumi doing something like this is a magical combination for me. I love it!
07 Unite! – Back we go to this sort of electro-clash soundtrack. Guitars and drums but to a high BPM backing track, it’s really pretty awesome. Sounds like she’s struggling a little to keep up with the tempo, so the chorus is a bit basic. It’s not a bad effort, and musically it’s quite invigorating to listen to. It’s just a shame that the production hammers along without too much room for Ayumi to sing a more complicated melody.
10 Evolution – I think the big singles from this album were the ones that really switched me on to Ayumi in a big way, and perhaps most of all these was Evolution. Starts off gently, but then the beat kicks in like a revving racing car. The rocky-dance sound is really established now, but this time Ayumi is ready with some really eye-poppingly fast delivery of the chorus. I really can’t get enough of that, it’s such a rush. Some of the guitar solo bits are a bit of a noisy mess, but the overall track has so much energy, and even manages a brilliant key-change towards the end. It’s totally mad but it’s incredible.
08 Naturally – This maybe feels more like the dancier moments of “Duty”, which is no bad thing, as you can certainly have too many guitars. I like that to-and-fro delivery of the vocals, and the general feel of the production. The chorus is strong, even if it doesn’t quite manage the insane heat of “Evolution”. It’s good but ultimately I don’t really remember this after I’ve finished the album.
06 Never Ever – I wonder why we never got a video for this, as the third single we got little more than a 30-second clip for a commercial. Many this is why it is familiar to me but I’ve never had quite the connection with it that I have for the bigger singles like “M” and “Evolution”. It’s got quite a lazy, plodding tempo to it, I’m not quite feeling it. The chorus is decent enough but it’s a bit too rocky for me to get that excited, a few too many self-indulgent guitar solos. I like the sweetly-vocalled middle-eight but I never get to excited about this one.
08 Still alone – Some rather despondent vocals on this dramatic ballad. Not that you’d have a clue that it was going to be a big ballad, the tempo is quite fast at the start, so when it gets to the big chorus, it’s a bit of a surprise. I have a soft spot for this song, maybe it’s an anthem for me *sigh*. I suppose if I really study it, there’s not a lot going on for such a long song, but I love those choruses and the harmonies. That key-change is a nice feature too, even if her vocals are a little shrill.
08 Daybreak – I love the video for this one, the lighting is just so other-worldly, it’s a great effect. The arrangements for all the songs on this album are so unusual, they feel totally different to the usual Western pop I listen to. After a quiet start, the chorus vocals are a little rough around the edges but it’s a nice melody, and the guitars are kept in check with some nice electronic production.
06 Taskinlude – Another little interlude, she always seems to have one produced by Tasuku with a correspondingly similar title. There’s not much to this mini-track, but it has a nice dirty lead-in to the next track.
10 M – Oh God I love this one, another WOW moment from this album campaign, and indeed it wowed Japan, making it another million-selling single for Ayumi. It starts very gently, with an almost acapella opening section. Then that dramatic beat kicks in, slow but relentless. The video was amazing, I love the church theme to it, almost reminiscent of Madonna’s 90s video that flirted with religious imagery (I’m thinking more “Oh Father” than “Like a Prayer” though). This song just builds and builds, until we reach the first big chorus. It just feels like she’s putting so much into the performance, it can’t be that easy to perform. The guitars are alright but maybe intrude a little bit on this one. Just when you think it’s maxed out, she takes it up to the next key for a big finale. Really dramatic and over-the-top, but she really pulls it off.
07 A Song is Born – Apparently written after the 9/11 attacks, which I’ve read had a big effect on the sound of this album, after it was originally meant to be quite a downbeat album. It’s a little sparse, but I got my wish to be spared the guitars for once. In fact it might even be a little boring without them, but I think that’s more down to the song. It’s a very peaceful light track, which is a nice feel, but perhaps without understanding the lyrics I’m a little bit lost. Quite uplifting though, even if some of her vocals are a bit shrieky.
07 Dearest – Another gentle ballad now, but I really love the melody on this one. Her vocals don’t have to stretch too high this time, so there’s a lot of control here. The chorus isn’t very impressive on the first attempt, but as the song develops they improve. I like that instrumental section just after the 3-minute mark, it’s a nice pause in the main vocals, and allows Ayumi to regroup for the big finish. It’s not that big a finish, but the key-change does the song good.
06 No more words – Are there going to be any words? A distant voice is heard la-ing away like the Little Mermaid, but then rather abruptly the song starts. It’s another downtempo ballad, but the bridge to the chorus sounds really warm, it’s a nice listen. I really don’t think a lot of the chorus though, I guess it’s personal taste, it’s just a bit clumsy. I didn’t really need this song making the tracklist seem bloated.
06 Endless Sorrow – Time to go out on a bit of a boring note, but it ended up being a successful single. I think this is quite different to the single mix, but the tune is essentially the same. The chorus is a bit dull really, it’s a nice enough vocal but doesn’t really have a big hook for me. The video was a bit sickly too I seem to remember, but maybe that’s just my cold black heart. It’s OK but I’m counting the minutes away…
If I had my way, this album would have finished at “M”, it would have been 45 minutes long, and that amazing finale would make me want to listen to the whole thing again. As it stands, “I am…” has some brilliant tracks on it, perhaps among her best. But after “M” is just gets bogged down in drippy ballads that don’t really have the impact of earlier tracks. It’s a shame really, and I should get used to over-long albums, but I have to say that. I’m still excited to listen to more of her catalogue though, I know there are still some great moments coming up.
Keepers for the iPod: I am, Evolution, Connected, Naturally, Still alone, Daybreak, M.