This guest entry was written by blogger and reviewer for “The Japan Times” Warut Yompool. Views and opinions expressed in this entry are solely those of the guest contributor.
Twenty years feels like an eternity in an industry as youth-obsessed as pop music. Infatuation is impulsive, and an average pop star would be amply fortunate to even have a decade-long shelf life. Love is a long game, and at 15, Hikaru Utada laid a foundation of what would become a long, illustrious career. Aptly titled “First Love,” the title track of her debut album, which holds the record for the best-selling album in Japan’s music history, conjured up an image of the first cigarette-flavored middle school kiss so vividly it still makes grown-ups cry in public to this day.
Now 35, single and a mother of one, Utada reintroduces herself with “Hatsukoi” which — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — translates to “first love.” This is less of a comeback record — that honor belongs to 2016’s “Fantôme” which came out after her self-imposed six-year-long hiatus and was widely regarded as her artistic statement conceived from an unconscionable pain of losing her mother to an apparent suicide. “Hatsukoi,” carrying over new-found confidence and polished sounds of its predecessor, is more of a self-titled record that the established artist never felt assured enough to release early in her career. Whereas “Fantôme” is quiet and deeply private, “Hatsukoi” is lush and stirring thanks to blockbuster production from music veterans including drummer Chris Dave and conductor Simon Hale. It sounds unapologetically commercial and individualistic like an artist of her caliber should. World, meet Hikaru Utada: The Pop Star Part II.
The world, it seems, would love to do just that. Out of its 13 tracks, the album boasts eight tie-ins ranging from TV commercials and dramas to movies to international video game franchises. There are commercial constraints within which Utada has to operate creatively here, and she clearly knows what she’s doing. It feels effortless how Utada tackles the emotional title track “Hatsukoi,” a welcome addition to her ballad oeuvre, with such tenacity. The same can be said about the way she skillfully applies cinematic vignette to the film soundtracks in the album. The soft rock “Good Night” soothes and soars, while the celebratory neo-soul “Anata” calls upon the imagery of hellfire and warfare to tell a story of a mother raising her young child in a difficult time.
Black music plays a major part here in taking the J-pop genre to an interesting new territory. A gospel choir gives the upbeat album opener “Play A Love Song” a triumphant, cathartic ending. Likewise, Dave’s sublime hi-hat-heavy drum work supplants the austere strings and adds an unexpected jazzy timber to the otherwise conventional genre number, “Forevermore.” Utada takes the biggest creative risk with the one song that, interestingly, has the highest stake: “Chikai.” This is the much-anticipated theme song to “Kingdom Hearts III,” the upcoming installment of the video game series that first introduced her to a majority of her international audience. For a song about taking an oath with a lover, it deliberately channels so much enigmatic, unsettling energy that it likely invites divisive reactions. Everything, from Utada’s increasingly awkward forcing-too-many-syllables-into-a-tempo delivery to multiple lyrical allusions to lies and deceit to the deceptive downbeat that never quite sounds in sync with the vocal throughout the anthemic chorus all the way to the final refrain, makes it the most challenging and rewarding experience of the record.
With most commercial assignments out of the way, the album makes room for the remaining tracks in the back half that — sans maybe the delirious bedroom jam, “Nokoriga” — show off Utada’s kooky personality and fascinating obsessions. There’s a song about — wait for it — cilantro called “Pakuchii No Uta,” in which Utada lovingly calls the plant “gentle, green, and a terrible liar” and contemplates cooking curry in honor of the sun’s birthday. Never has romantic turmoil sounded so bouncy and jolly than as in “Too Proud,” which features up-and-coming UK rapper Jevon over 8-bit video game sound effects. Utada’s gift at sunnily telling a heart-wrenching story is also evident in the transitional first single, “Oozora De Dakishimete,” It starts out breezy and casual on a Sunday morning, goes on to lyrically revealing itself as a brutally honest, emotionally charged conversation with her deceased mother, and ends by ascending into a starry night sky.
It’s Utada’s fixation on mortality, a through-line of her entire body of work, that puts a definitive, surprisingly hopeful end to the album. Death is a focal point of both the aquatic hymn, “Yuunagi” and the fiery, sexy orchestral hip-hop epic album closer, one of the highlights of “Hatsukoi,” “Shittosarerubeki Jinsei” which chronicles a tale of ‘til-death-do-us-part consummate love. It’s love so supreme that it’s your first, last and only. Something so surreal might be enough to justify the existence of pop music and its tried-and-true focus on love. For a brief moment captured in amber, somewhere in the melody, something in the voice, or the way the beat suddenly comes alive makes you come close to experiencing that holy feeling. Even after decades have passed, you can still fall in love for the first time, again.
Warut Yompool is a San Francisco-based culture writer. Originally from Bangkok, Thailand, he is a pop music aficionado who has published music reviews, artist feature stories and opinion pieces in “The Japan Times” and his personal blog, Review Like Nobody’s Reading. Besides music, he enjoys watching good movies, taking street photographs and smiling at every dog he walks past.