After the stripped back return of Utada Hikaru to music with Fatome bought us quiet songs, ballads aplenty and a mature focus, I have been very intrigued as to how Utada Hikaru would play Hatsukoi, her new album. What she has done is play a blinder. Hatsukoi (First Love) is a much more varied album that picks up many of the different sounds she has used across her career and is a much more interesting album, jam-packed with earworms.
Opening with a happy note “Play A Love Song”, its a light keyboard, heavy piano pop track that would feel at home on the Heart Station album. It’s catchy chorus, sparkly synths and cute riffs show off Hikaru’s poppier side and ease of making something that can be played over on repeat to a hyper happy crowd. “Anata” flips us back to something from Distance or Fantome. The mix of chunkier beats is really welcome when paired with the jazzier sides of the track. Jazz R’B pop is how I’d describe it and it’s interesting this style has become more prominent in the last two albums since her collaboration with Shiina Ringo who flips between riot rock and sultry jazz each release. This one is a grower, not a shower, unlike title track “Hatsukoi” which feels like a spiritual successor to Final Distance. The swelling of the rich orchestra, simple quiet verses and Utada Hikaru’s high register rinsing out every bit of emotion from her repeated calls of “I Need You”. Its fluidity is a marked contrast to “Chikai” which is the Kingdom Hearts 3 theme song which starts off with an off-kilter rigid beat and piano structure. It’s swing beat however grows and develops over the track so that the initially clunky feeling eases into something my symphonic and dramatic. The tracks also has some of the most unusual vocal pacing I’ve heard in a pop song for a while. Some phrases are really drawn out, and others are spat at you. If I’m honest the track took me a few listens to really get to grips with and now I love it, particularly when it all comes together in the final minute.
“Forevermore” feels like a lost track from Distance. The beautiful strings, Utada’s voice front and centre – pointed at you – and the full band percussion – it fits together perfectly. The flow and energy of the track are so much more feisty and spicier than anything from Fantome, which is exactly what I wanted from this album. That spice continues onto “Too Proud” which features Jevan as a guest rap. I have always struggled with rap and so I struggle with this track but with deep dub bass lines, chunky electro beats and nods to the “This Is The One” album in style, sound and production is a nice addition with some quirky circus-like synth riffs. “Good Night” is a song that takes you by surprise. Sounding like a traditional 60’s ballad, it quickly transitions into an acoustic rock pop anthem. It’s also easily one of the best framings of the word goodbye as a single word chorus. It’s got all the sadness we associate with Utada Hikaru’s voice, and the bittersweet chord structure to make you curl into a ball. “Pakuchii No Uta” is another song that transitions from nursery rhyme cuteness to a sombre brass ballad. It feels like lots of separate entities pulled together and on first listen you’re unsure of where it’s going but after that, you’ll be waving your phone in the air with the light on.
“Nokoriga” takes a nod to the gospel genre with lush organs providing warmth and a hug with a relatively straightforward ballad before the organs can rock out in a rhodes piano style with “Oozzora De Dakishimete” which is a strange single choice, but utterly works in the album context. The verses, in particular, are fantastic and reminds me of Ultra Blue’s album and juxtaposition of warm instruments and sad sympathetic chords. It’s a great track and the transition into something more cinematic and dramatic with the strings in the second half continues to show this transformative nature across the album. For me, “Yuunagi” is the album’s masterpiece. I find Utada Hikaru at her best when she’s busy with rocking it, or making anti-pop songs. This one falls into the latter. A single cello plays around a lullaby of minor chords on the piano and a swaying beat as Utada moves from something of a pop structure to a traditional singer. Her voice is warped about and layered over herself throughout the second half as it builds into something truly beautiful and heartbreaking. On the first listen I genuinely stopped the album and took a minute – before hitting repeat immediately. That leaves “Shittosarerubeki Kinsei” and its kick drum happy beats to round off the album with its cinematic pop. Lush strings, dramatic piano chords and light vocals layered over each other – it’s like a crime drama time lapse musical piece and very chilled.
Cinematic pop would be how I’d describe Hatsukoi. I can picture every song as an end credit, time lapse, emotional impact scene or something to compliment and expand on a visual moment. Utada Hikaru has done it again. I didn’t click with Fantome as much as her previous works but this is right up there with all her best work. Each track feels like it has something unique to say and it says it stylishly. Superb – anyone wanting to enjoy J-Pop’s finest, start here.
Recommended track: Hatsukoi
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