Album: Utada – “This is the one” (2009)

Five years after the success of English-language “Exodus” (in Japan at least), Hikaru had a contract to fulfil and flew Stateside to complete a follow-up.

Perhaps mindful of the experimental nature of “Exodus”, you can hardly blame her for taking a more mainstream approach to try and break America. Unfortunately some fans felt this was a bit of a sellout, as the album maybe sounded a little too mainstream for fans of her Japanese crossover sound. Ultimately the album didn’t quite manage any of its commercial goals, unusually missing the No.1 spot in Japan and languishing at #69 in the US.

I wasn’t too fussed about this first time I heard it, but it’s a perfectly listenable RnB-lite album, with maybe not enough of Utada’s personal touch as I was hoping.

 

09 Come back to me – A dramatic piano intro, lovely … seamless segues into a totally different RnB ballad, I could imagine Beyonce doing something like this (and having a big hit with it). It’s really grown on me, it’s pretty standard but something about her voice just makes it so easy to listen to. The scales she does on the bridges are really gorgeous, and the harmonious backing vocals on the chorus really lift this one. OK it’s not going to win any originality awards but it’s really sweet.

08 Me Muero – A sexy rhythmic Latin number, with some quite strange lyrics thrown in there. She’s feeling suicidal, her lover’s gone to Istanbul(!) and she’s reading old emails in her pyjamas. It’s quite an endearingly strange little song, especially those weird “shabba dabba” backing vocals. That rhythm really does make it, and it’s got a very likeable attitude to it.

08 Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence / FYI – A great use of a sample from the famous movie score, forming a really interesting soundbed for the song. Not sure what the relevance is to the song though, but it works as a good mash-up. An understated sexy theme, again supported brilliantly by the backing vocals, even a few “uh uh” points just set things off. A lot of the lyrics seem to be total nonsense (“mp3 mp3, ching-a-ling, ching-a-ling, uhhhoohh”), but it doesn’t hold back my enjoyment.

09 Apple and Cinnamon – Complaints that this is a bit of a generic RnB album won’t be answered by this track, you could imagine any of the high-profile RnB females doing this, Jordin Sparks anyone? That chorus is pretty undeniable though. A bit dependent on repetition, but the second hold of the chorus is touching and heartfelt. In fact a lot of this album seems to be a bit downbeat in style, this isn’t really a “cheering up” album in any sense. But this is one of my favourites of this album.

06 Taking my money back – Instead of mourning more lost relationships, Utada’s on the attack now (sort of). Well the lyrics certainly sound like they should be attacking, but there’s not really the conviction in her delivery. I don’t know why I’m bringing up Beyonce again but this does just remind me of how much ballsier earlier Destinys Child songs were in comparison. Bills Bills Bills anyone? Not bad to listen to, just a bit toothless.

08 This one (crying like a child) – If you’re going to be sad, at least play it to your strengths. Fortunately that’s exactly what happens here, nothing very original, but I love her tone of voice. Those bridges are lovely, and the interesting sound to her vocals on the verses are really listenable. it’s downbeat again but it just has more passion and pain behind it then a lot of other tracks on here.

07 Automatic Part II – Enough misery, time to take it to the cluubbzz. Sort of. It’s not a massively uptempo number or anything, but it’s got a vaguely RnB beat to it, reminds me a little of Aaliyah. Lyrics are a bit naff, but that beat really works well. Is she using a vodka tonic as a contraceptive?! Oh dear me… Just sort of chugs along, the “oh oh oh” backing vocals help out a little at the end but it’s a bit more autopilot than automatic.

08 Dirty Desire – Well she seems to be over her heartbreak at least, and she wants to get some and doesn’t care who knows it. I suppose as a Japanese artist I thought she’d have a bit more class than dropping cliches like “love you long time” and eyebrow raising moments like “during my 9-to-5, I’m thinking 6 & 9”. Sort of makes me question what she was prepared to do (musically) to try to get some US notoriety, not the sort of question that sits well with me. It’s annoyingly catchy though, even that rather scary “BRING THAT BEAT BACK” woman who appears right at the end.

07 Poppin’ – What a weird one, it’s like the theme music to a cat-burglar or something. An unusual bouncy rhythm, but at least it breaks the mould of this album a bit. Her high-pitched vocals on the chorus is memorable but I’m not sure what I think of it. The talky bits are curiously captivating, she’s got a pretty sexy speaking voice. An odd one in this album’s tracklist but not a bad thing.

06 On & On – What a generic urban clubby beat! Still, her breathy vocals are lovely as ever. I don’t know who that guy is yelping over the backing track, it’s not Fatman Scoop is it? A real sell-out for the closing track, but it’s OK. Actually why pick this as a closing track, just sort of underlines how this album doesn’t really have much of a running narrative, just a bunch of potential radio singles.

While her voice is growing on me, more as a result of “Exodus” than anything, I am a bit disappointed at how diluted this album sounds compared to that album. Creative direction seems to have taken a back seat to securing an American breakthrough, something it didn’t managed at all. As interesting (to me) a Japanese artist breaking Stateside is – let alone THE biggest Japanese artist – musically there was nothing to sell that wasn’t already being done a lot and to a higher quality.

The album stands up to repeated listens, but I doubt if I ever made a list of my favourite Utada songs that many (or even any) would make the cut. Of course I’m still interested in another English-language album from her, but I don’t want it at the price of her sound..

Keepers for the iPod: Come back to me, Me Muero, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence/FYI, Apple & cinnamon, This one, Dirty Desire.

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