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Utada Hikaru – “Fantome” Review

Back after 6 years - it was worth the wait...
Utada Hikaru

It almost felt like Utada Hikaru’s return to music after 6 years away could have gone completely unnoticed if she’d have let it as Hikki, as she’s known, has approached this album in such a low-key fashion it’s been left to her army of fans to do all the promo for her. Indeed this low key simplicity is what makes “Fantome” such a curious return to music. It’s an adult pop album that nods to her previous work but feels like a new chapter too.

“Michi” opens the album like a continuation from her previous album Heart Station. It’s a simple dance track with an insanely catchy hook. The chorus sings “it’s a lonely road but I’m not alone” and it’s something that permeates the entire album which is heavily influenced by the death of her mother. It’s really one of only two purely happy tracks on the album and the fact it comes first makes it feel like she’s essentially saying “I’m ok – but this album’s going to show you the crap I’ve been through”. It’s a stand out to show how easy a pop gem can roll off her tongue. The jazzy orchestral pop track “Ore No Kanojo” is also a stand out for me. It loops around two specific phrases each time building on its jazz beginnings to a rich symphonic drama. To hear it in full flow by the end allows Utada one of the few moments of complexity in what is a very straight album.

There are several ballads on the album and they all take the form of a traditional band style. Gone are synths and keyboards and in for this album is a natural soundscape. “Hanataba Wo Kimini” showcases the beautiful piano, strings, bass and drums arrangement that the album sticks to often to great effect. It’s a grower not a shower especially when “Ningyo” replaces the piano with a harp, it’s a track that can get lost on first listen. The latter certainly doesn’t though and feels like a track written for her mother. Translating to Mermaid, Utada’s fragile vocals fit perfectly around the harp’s arpeggios and the big drums echo around the emptiness left behind. Between these is a duet with Shiina Ringo, another lady I am a huge fan of (although I prefer her rock side). “Nijikan Dake No Vacance” allows the guitar to come to the fore as the two voices go surprisingly well together. It’s a quiet anthem that gets better on repeated listens – like much of the album.

“Tomodachi” is as close to her R&B styled roots as she get’s hear with a simple acoustic guitar riff over drum beats. Hear the brass arrangements for the codas and chorus really make the track shine as Hikki sings at speed over the beats. In a similar vein “Kouya No Ookami” feels like it’s sibling as a thick bass line slinks its way over a panting backing track. For me though it’s the middle sections where the track breaks out into something more surreal and intriguing. I always love it she plays in minor chords and this is no exception. Seperating the brass tracks is ballad “Manatsu No Tooriame” which hasn’t quite clicked with me yet. “Boukyaku” features rapper Kohh over an ambient arrangements of heart beats, synth swirls and pulsating percussion. I am not a fan of speech rap and would prefer the track with him on it as it’s a really interesting artistic expression as sounds pulse in and out and Utada’s own voice feels like an instrument at times. I take it as audio interpretation of the end of a life or a passage of time.

“Jinsei Saikou No Hi” then rounds off the journey with the second happy track. If Heart Station was being played live with a band this is how I’d imagine it would sound like. Thr organs are cute and the repetition of the phrase “That’s Life!” implies that she’s taken all the woes in her stride. The album closes with the devastatingly amazing “Sakura Nagashi” from the film Evangelion 3.0. It’s one of the best ballad’s she’s created and one of the best ballad’s I’ve heard in recent years and it’s a fantastic way to end the album.

“Fantome” is a grower not a shower and repeated listens really help you find the groove here. It feels like a coming of age or a wiping the slate clean piece of work and there’s some fantastic tracks here, if you take the time to invest in them.

Recommended Track : Sakura Nagashi

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