Album: Ayumi Hamasaki – “Guilty” (2008)

My trip through Ayumi’s back catalogue reaches a turning point today, as I reach the latest of her studio albums that I own. However this is still rather new ground, as I never really gave the album much of a chance. Not because I thought it was bad, just that I was getting to the end of my first big J-Pop phase, and I no longer felt the need to blindly buy any Ayumi release.

Oddly, the promotion of its second single “Talkin’ 2 myself” was underway when I made my first trip to Japan back in 2007. I even bought the single in my excitement, but I wonder what happened after that for me to cool off..

Whatever it was, it’s time to put that right. Fortunately it’s a decent pop album, and uncharacteristically brief. I was used to her massive albums like “My Story” to be a bit of a drag, but “Guilty” is wrapped up within an hour. So without the filler of a longer album, it’s a tight little package.

08 Mirror – She likes her interludes on this album, and this brief intro kicks things off. I like the little glockenspiel intro and the urgency in the music. The beat kicks in, and a speedy and heavy rock sound carries us into the first song. I love an energetic intro!

08 (don’t) Leave me alone – I wonder how Ayumi’s sound is going to develop over the remaining studio albums I’m going to listen to. So far this seems a bit like business as usual, with those crunching guitars and noisy synths presenting a ballsy first track. It makes a surprising but seamless transition to a more synth-heavy chorus, I really like that chorus, it’s got a unexpected melody after all the noisy verses. Not up there with her best but it’s really grown on me.

07 Talkin’ 2 myself – I like that little tune in the intro, but then those big crunching guitars hit us like a sledgehammer. I’ve never been too fond of her rocky sound, and with an album “Rock’n’Roll Circus” coming up, I’m not sure it’s a habit she will shake. The chorus is solid and memorable – but is this song I’m remembering? It feels a bit too familiar, maybe something a few albums back sounds like this. The rapid-fire delivery is good but I’m not really feeling this. This was one of the singles too, oops.

07 Decision – Ahh, a nice piano intro, some strings… this is more like it. I’m braced for those big guitars and… oh, there they are. Never mind. Oh wait, where did they go? Make up your mind! (no pun intended). Again it feels a bit like history repeating sound-wise, but the quieter bits are still quite nice. I hope she’s still making those orchestral remix albums…

08 Together When – Now this sounds like she might even stick to the piano ballad sound, thank God. Let’s just hope it’s no a boring one. She can kick out a great ballad when she wants to (see “Heaven” from “(miss)Understood“). This doesn’t really get close to that level, and considering this was another of the singles, perhaps it’s cause for worry. I like when it beefs up a bit towards the end, or threatens to at least. There’s a nice middle-eight leading to a gorgeous orchestral section, I love those strings! Even the guitars are welcome to this party, providing good support without drowning everything out. A shaky start, but it’s a solid and classy J-Ballad.

05 Guilty – That’s an extended intro, more guitars but the mix is right and it’s not too overbearing. A bit of a gloomy mid-tempo track, it never seems to gather much momentum. Again this feels like a bit of a re-tread of old ground, and isn’t very exciting at all.

07 Fated – Let’s put some hope in one of the last singles, the ballad half of a AA-side release with “Glitter”. I like those glassy synthy effects and the gentle start, which quickly (but smoothly) layer up with little bits of production until we reach the chorus. Vocally it’s a little too laid-back but the tune is quite memorable. Not amazing, but so far I can see why it might have been paired up with another song for a single release.

08 Marionette prelude – A creepy music box intro, slowing down and speeding up like it’s creeping up on me. There’s not a lot to it, even after a woodwind effect chirps in, making it sound like a Final Fantasy score. Cute.

09 Marionette – Oh I LOVE that intro, gorgeous and fantasy-like, this sounds like nothing else on the album, perhaps nothing she’s done so far. Her vocals are very subdued at the start, I love those verses. The chorus is disappointingly lacking in the same kind of individuality, but leading back into that fairytale melody for the second verse is really lovely. Yes, I think the choruses let this one down a bit, but I really love everything else, really magical. Even that naff old axe-solo bit in the middle-eight can’t ruin this one.

08 The judgement day – Wow, this is a bit of a gloomy album isn’t it? The end is nigh, with some spooky mechanical noises and church organs heralding the end of days. Don’t worry, it’s only an interlude! Inexplicably morphs into the first clubby moment we’ve had so far. Surprising but welcome.

08 My all – Hooray, there might be some pop in this J-Pop album after all! Finally an optimistic sound to this one. Very cute, even if it seems a little restrained in the tempo, I can’t imagine this in a club, it’s just a bit too slow. Those squealing guitars are a bit cheesy but this is a perfectly pleasant pop song. But after the awesome uptempos on “Secret” I thought she might still be able to do something as energetic as that. She’s leaving it a bit late…

09 Glitter – Oh hold up, this is looking like it’s what I’m looking for. Thank God, a bit of joy! An obvious choice for a single, it’s got all the warmth of the big uptempo singles on “Secret”, and a lovely little melody in the chorus. A little sad that this is the only song of its kind on the album, but maybe she’s just in that sort of mood. Kind of business as usual, but this sort of thing is where Ayumi really shines. That middle-eight, and the spazzy synth flourish leading into the final chorus is great… hooray!

08 reBIRTH – With that excitement out of the way, it’s time to put this album to bed with a short outro. It feels like it’s just stuck on the end, it doesn’t feel like it ties into the rest of the album. But for what it is, it’s very nice, I like those big shimmering synth effects, whatever they are supposed to mean. I wonder what this rebirth is supposed to lead to…

Hmm well it didn’t completely win me over. It’s easy enough to listen to when I’m doing something else, but I expected more from her than just background music. Maybe this is why it’s the last Ayumi album I own… but I’m interested to hear what the “Next Level” will offer.

Keepers for the iPod: Mirror, (don’t) Leave me alone, Together when, Marionette prelude, Marionette, My All, Glitter, reBIRTH

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