For a girl who splits her time between NYC and Tokyo, wagging her tongue in Japanese and English, it’s only natural for Utada Hikaru to want to serve both her nations up a dish of hip Hikki tunes.
Born to Japanese parents, a music-producer father and a family of musicians (her grandmother was of a famous legacy of blind shamisen players), it was basically signed in blood at her birth that Utada would be a major pop-star world-wide. Her being charmingly, as she puts it in the song Easy Breezy, “Japaneezy” and yet American has made Utada extremely accessible to English-speaking fans across the globe. However, since one of her first songs, First Love, written at the tender age of 15, Utada has shown a real preference for writing music in Japanese.
But, as mentioned previously, it seems she wants to open up to her American side as well, thus the all-English alias “Utada” (her Japanese albums are released under 宇多田ヒカル).
This trend started with the album Exodus,
which is a topic for another time, but will keep cropping up. Her latest album, all-English ensemble following up her most recent Japanese release, Heart Station, was released in February of this year under the title This is the One.
Ever since her (very) early days in the music biz, under such illustrative names as “Cubic-U”, Utada has shown an obvious appreciation for the hip-hop and R&B tunes of her native NYC. Although this shows a little in her earlier Japanese stuff, (think Automatic), she mostly dropped the Hikki Homegirl flavor for what turned out to be a respectable and impressive knockout of Jpop that was, fans feel, more down-to-earth and rockier than pop-goddess Hamasaki’s ethereal technotic hypnosis. But we’re definitely feeling the Cubic-U in Utada’s latest album. She has taken a shallow dip into R&B that adds a soul-feel to the music.
In Exodus there were the quirky lyrics that sometimes made little sense, almost an homage to the Japenglish we hear in other non-English-speaking songwriters’ hits. Yes, the album was weird and experimental, but was full of respectable hits that packed a real punch and fed the starved English-speaking listeners who wanted something they could sing along with in their mother-tongue while staying true to Jpop roots.
Utada’s consistent up-beat eccentricity flowed along until Heart Station, which was packed with sentimentality and came with Utada-embossed tissues to wipe away your tears after listening. (just kidding). And here we have This is the One, the sentimental package wrapped with female suffering and a ribbon, too, begging the question– is it the one?
That’s arbitrary, innit? But let’s have a look at Utada’s latest release and all-English album, and see how it looks from up here on the plateau of snub-nosed elitist taste.
This is the One was released almost simultaneously with the single Come Back to Me, which is featured on the album as well. It seems pointless, but I guess you get the karaoke version of the hit song.
The 12 track album opens with On and On, an irresistibly danceable track– Utada, plus drum-track, plus some tireless, absolutely inexhaustible, guy who shouts “yuh” every 3 seconds from beginning to end, finally leaving you stalled, mid-dance, to tear your hair and give the CD player a good shake screaming “YUH! YUH! YUH!”
On and On might be catchy (If you want to be caught singing “on and on and on, make the night go on and on and on”) and danceable, but has little punch, and the lyrics are indistinct enough that they sound interesting until you get to the third repeat of the same verse– leaving you feeling slightly cheated of Utada’s eccentric lyric-writing skills that were showcased in Exodus 04 and Easy Breezy, but apparently blocked for On and On.
Is this setting the stage for the rest of the album? Yes and no. The shouting man-pet finally gives our brain-tumor a break and the album sidles on into Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence– FYI. Intro courtesy of the original piano piece by pianist Sakaamoto Ryuichi (the song name comes from the movie starring British rock-king David Bowie). Mr. Lawrence sets our tightened jaws at ease and gives us hope for the future. One of the great hits of the album, Mr. Lawrence fulfills the high-expectations for Utada melody, vocals, and funky lyrics. Both upbeat and a little melancholy, the cryptic lyrics carry you dream-like through ‘fields where the grasses lie’, soaring along on her wonderful ‘ooooohhhhaaaaaaaooooohaaaaa’s to the very end. The piece is really one of her great English works; more polished than her Exodus stuff, and certainly more mature, Mr. Lawrence is more of the standard we expect from Hikki.
Next we hear the drum-beat that you will come to know well by the conclusion of the album. The same rhythm seems to be remixed for the rest of the songs– but is cleverly disguised so that by the time you figure it out, it doesn’t matter anyway. Mr. Lawrence leads into Apple and Cinnamon, which opens us up to the mood of the rest of the album. The first two tracks set us up in a sort of false-security, because actually behind her desire to just dance on and on and on and on (as eternally, one might assume, as the tireless layman egging her on) and the all-nighters pulled with Lawrence-san, there is a huge loss and depth of bittersweet that you will become quite intimate with by the album’s end. Another high-point of the album, Apple and Cinnamon is a simple piece that carries its melancholy well, and the every-day break-up theme is supported by Utada’s simplistic, every-day lyrics. The chorus, although repetitive, is strangely fulfilling nonetheless, and even if you get tired of hearing the pie-fillings repeated, it would take a hardened war-lord not to enjoy Utada’s breathy vocals.
This part of the album is sort of like ‘plummet to despair part 1’. Following Apple and Cinnamon, Taking My Money Back tells us what went wrong right before she composed the previous song. Apparently the thug used her badly, and now she’s ready to stand up on her two feet and get out of the wheelin’-dealin’ apartment (one can’t keep images of a Brooklyn summer night at bay while listening to track 4). The only thing that can keep you from drowning yourself after listening to this song is the edge of humor she puts even into this kind of depressing theme.
Track 5 is another keeper. Altogether a pretty song, This One (Crying Like a Child) is a poignant climax to the pain experienced so far. Another great showcase for her compositional powers that be, This One is packed full of melody, vocals, and weird wording that packs some plaintive punch. Although it threatens to plunge the listener into depression, she keeps it real and you’re good to repeat the track a few times until your ennui is satisfied.
Unfortunately that’s about where my interest dwindled out. It resumed briefly at track 9, the highlighted but mainstream-feeling Come Back to Me— also about female mistakes in relationships and potential ruination. The opening piano arpeggio is a striking attention-getter that gives way for more rhythmic clapping, regurgitated drum-beat, and another pretty melody. The lyrics throughout the album are pocked with words that root us in 21st century romance– Mp3 players, 100 JPeg files, and now Memories of Manhattan and photoshopping the past and all that. Although catchy, again the lyrics are a little repetitive and almost too easy to remember– leaving a little inspiration to be desired, but somehow satisfying in a shallow sort of way.
The whole album seems to soundtrack a downtown collage of failed romances. This is the One can feel a little disjointed at times, with so much variation in theme that it feels more like a sampler than a cohesive story with a satisfying conclusion. The upside to this is that it keeps you on your toes and prevents you from pausing the album halfway through. Whether you enjoy what you stick around for or not is up to you.
Her halfhearted plunge into “hip-pop” set This is the One apart as something very different from most of Utada’s stuff– as I said before, take it or leave it. One of the things that you can see both in Exodus and This is the One, is that Utada’s English songs tend to be, well, dirtier than her Japanese music. Songs like Let Me Give You My Love, Tippy Toe (Exodus), and Dirty Desire (This is the One) are full of sex– almost so much that it feels a bit gratuitous. I’m totally fine with all the trashyness of Jpoppers and am desensitized to all sorts of blatant raunchiness. Utada can get down if she wants, and, in the case of Exodus, she used it creatively and made some great songs. In Dirty Desire and Taking My Money Back, I’m almost rolling my eyes. Koda Kumi came in flaunting her womanness and now all the girl-next-door poppies have to compete with her sales, I guess.
Hardcore Hikki fans will, perhaps, miss the naivete that whooped up so much awkward but successful punch from Exodus, but not-yet-fans might find the Top 40 feel of This is the One to be a good entry point into Hikki-ism or Jpop. Although spotted with a few gems, This is the One was unfortunately not the one for me. Personally, I was missing the Jpop, feeling the Apop, and wanting a lollipop.
This is the One is available on iTunes, Amazon, and at most major sellers in the United States and Japan (published under her English-release name, Utada). Please support Utada by purchasing her albums.
Utada’s personal pick off the album: