This has been on my to-do list for a long while, the debut English album of J-Pop colossus Hikaru Utada. Utada had astounding levels of success in Japan since her debut album in 1999. Three of her albums are in the all-time Japanese top 10, including the biggest-selling album with her debut “First Love” and the biggest opening week ever with follow-up “Distance”.
I haven’t really listened to her earlier stuff, it’s a bit too R’n’B influenced for my tastes but I’m sure I’ll get around to it. I really started to love her after hearing some of her bigger hits, and 2006 album “Ultra Blue”. However in 2004 she released her first international English-language album “Exodus”. I loved some songs off it, but overall it was a bit of an oddball and I never quite gave it enough attention at the time. I’ve had a big turnaround in the last few weeks though, and it’s revealed itself to be a pretty smart offbeat little pop record.
09 Opening – I have her amazing 2006 concert on DVD so this just reminds me of the mesmerising intro to that. A light, airy and mysterious introduction that really sets up the mood and sound of the album.
09 Devil Inside – A moody electronic intro, the whole album has this unique tone to it, I was surprised to hear it was Timbaland behind a lot of the album, and even Danja (whose work I really know from that Britney’s great “Blackout” album). This is a dark electronic with a subtle but strong beat under the surface. This ended up being the biggest hit in the US, but it doesn’t sacrifice its Japanese side, there are plenty of Asian influences in the mix. So many memorable little riffs!
08 Exodus ’04 – That strange atmosphere is still in the production, giving a bit of an anxious tone to the song. About leaving her family – I’m presuming here that it’s about Utada’s attempts to break America, or at least expand her horizons outside Japan. It’s got a lovely piano riff that you might not even notice, but is a great bed for the song. The lyrics are quite touching too, communicates the feeling of worry about leaving your roots I think.
07 The workout – There are moments in this album that remind me of Bjork. Not held back by typical pop song structures, there are heaps of interesting beeps and bloops and beats throughout this album, and particularly in this song. A bit of a slutty offbeat track that doesn’t really fit to a genre. I love her lyrics too, just work so effectively to let my imagination fill in the blanks in the story. Not my favourite song but it works so well as part of the album’s sound.
09 Easy breezy – After those serious tracks, something a little lighter. Perhaps a lot lighter than expected, and I remember a few eyebrows were raised at some of the lyrics “You’re easy breezy and I’m Japanesey”. I didn’t really think to much about this song, but it’s so catchy once it gets you. Bouncy and cute, even if it’s about post-breakup feelings. A bit of a strange one to pick for the first single, but still very good.
07 Tippy Toe – This must be a Timbaland track, right? Feeling a bit more like “The workout” in tone, it was never one of my favourites, but still has its place. That squelchy production under a lot of it was memorable. She’s not afraid to sing about sexier topics, even if this sounds like she’s keeping some secrets. I love how this album so far has kept a strong identity in the sound of the songs without it sounding samey.
09 Hotel Lobby – This is one that feels a lot more Japanese than the rest so far. Very robotic and plinky-plonky, I love that whole intro, especially when that beepy electronic riff gets established. The song seems to be about (I’m probably wrong) a high-class business hookers, just trying to pay the bills. It’s got a lightness to the tone but really it’s pretty sad, the woman in question just making herself a bit numb to get through it all, and perhaps even disappearing to society (or worse). Some really gorgeous moments, like the “catch me ‘cos I think I’m falling” bit. Really great stuff.
09 Animato – Very Bjorkish feel to some of it, a really strange effect at the start. Not as beat-driven as the other songs, but quite industrial-soundng. There is still room for some effective choir effects, and an easy-to-miss military drum beat. This really is just gorgeous, I don’t know where to start. The melody is so interesting to listen to, just jumps around unexpectedly. Love this.
06 Crossover interlude – Echoing the opening intro, a brief moment to re-group, but returning to that “I don’t wanna cross over” mission statement. Doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of that awesome opening track though.
10 Kremlin Dusk – Definitely one of the highlights of the concert DVD I have, and I believe had something to do with The Mars Volta on production duties (though Wiki isn’t being much help). This song just builds the layers up and up until it has a pretty full-on spectacle on its hands. That harpsichord on the bridge really sets off the strange feel to the song, and the various introductions of production effects and noises just flow seamlessly. A few clunky lyrics (“Edgar Allen Poe”?!), and the longest track on the album but certainly doesn’t get stale or outstay its welcome. Eventually the drum tempo just cranks up and it’s a pretty big track. Spectacular!
08 You make me want to be a man – What an odd single choice again (though I don’t have a better alternative). That weird distorted alien noise that makes up the bulk of the choruses might get annoying for some people, but I like it. That beat is amazing too, it’s heavy but not intrusive. The verses are a little difficult but the chorus more than makes up for it. A bit of a struggle for the regular J-Pop fan, but really grew on me after a long while…
07 Wonder bout – God I love that squeaky riff, just so catchy. This feels very Western, I’m sure this must be one of the American-produced tracks. Wouldn’t feel out of place with one of the early 00’s RnB females of choice singing it, like Aaliyah maybe. The melody doesn’t quite suit the production somehow, but definitely has its moments. It’s a fun listen, even if it’s not my usual style. But that squeaky riff really is irresistible.
07 Let me give you my love – That must be a Timbaland track right? That gorgeously deep electro-bassline is brilliant. Going for the sexier subject matter now, and she wants a bit of inter-racial action, make no mistake. Does she really sing “but your body’s so Jar Jar Binks”?! Surely not. A bit of a breathless track, like she’s just reacting to the death she sings about at the start, and might not really be thinking straight. I don’t know, maybe that’s just how I hear it. Love that “Hot hot hot” bit too! Not a standout track but certainly listenable enough.
06 About me – We even get a ballad to round things off then, and no tricks are played here. A pretty straightforward acoustic ballad to start, and doesn’t really get much more demanding. OK a beat kicks in, but it’s a bit of a cooldown from the chaos of the rest of the album, nothing to get fretful about. A bit boring, all said and done, but pleasant enough.
Well overall that was a massive success for me, I only feel bad that I never felt this way years ago when I first heard it. Maybe my tastes have changes, or maybe it’s simply an album that needs a bit more time to blossom. I seem to remember her follow-up English album “This is the one” wasn’t great, but it’s certainly inspired me to listen to Utada more. A really good listen! A rare occurrence, but I’m keeping this whole album on my iPod!