Three years of artistic experimentation crammed into an album of parts.
Each Utada Hikaru album has its own defined style and sound. Part of the fun is exploring the new sound Utada Hikaru is playing with for the latest collection of songs. So far we’ve had RnB, electronica, J-Pop, art pop and then what I call sophstipop (acoustic/rock instruments making poppy tracks). Jazz has an undercurrent at times and so does rock. “BAD MODE” is the first album where I’m not quite sure what the running theme of the album is. It is an alternative RnB album to a point but it wants to be a dance album too. It feels like a couple of EP’s smashed together and whilst individual songs absolutely hit home, as an album it is a bit of a wild ride.
Things start out cohesive with the jazzy RnB tones of the title track. It’s got a fun groove to it, Utada is on point vocally singing their first swears in Japanese and generally giving a “Distance” album vibe but from a much older perspective. It’s sultry and sassy as the brass, drums, keys and vocals just flow. “Kimini Muchuu” continues the flow with a rhythmic electronica pulse that starts out quite rigid with a piano and switches to a beautiful synth ebb and flow. It also unveils and confirms the song structure for a lot of the tracks on this album. Utada Hikaru really dives deep into climactic outros and codas on this album and all three opening tracks nail their exits. “One Last Kiss” is pure j-pop perfection that builds itself up and up over catchy vocal oohs, a mixture of Japanese and English and some great riffs. The outro vocally and synth build-up is immensely satisfying and shows that Utada is very confident making listeners wait for the payoff to carefully laid melodies. By this point, we’ve moved into Ultra Blue / Heart Station territory sonically, something “Pink Blood” confirms with its minimalist electric pianos and crystal clear electric drum kits that carry simple, thin vocal deliveries. This all feels like EP 1.
We then enter the return back home section of the album where RnB grooves sit front and centre. “Time” and “Kibunja Naino” are both laid back chilled tracks. The drums are thick, the retro synths like radiofrequency noises and pastel keys fill up the background and Hikaru’s voice stays silky smooth. More interesting is the want to experiment again with extended outros that allow complex synth work and Utada’s son guest vocal briefly (it is very cute). This lets the album move into a more playful, almost ambient at times mood. This is something “Darenimo Iwanai” plays with in detail. It merges the RnB rhythms with their modern sound from Hatsukoi where saxophones and real instrumentation takes over. The entire track feels like it is conveying a mood rather than a melody and it’s interesting to hear these songs are a trio. They feel like EP 2 – connected in style and intent.
EP 3 is what I entitle “I’d like Exodus 2022 please”. Here we are diving into deep dance, dark electronica and the alternative grit that Utada’s first English album conveyed. Utada went on record saying “I wanted to get weird again” and this is where that weirdness comes out. “Find Love” is if “Dirty Desire” was cut in Exodus clothes and it’s a bop. in Dirty Desire we went from dance to rock, here we go from dance to slow dub but it is just as powerful in its vibe switch. Then we have “Face My Fears”. The Japanese version is on the tracklist but the English version is included as a bonus track too. It doesn’t fit the album style much but if it fits anywhere, it is in this dance/electronica section of the album. It is popular to hate on the track but it is one that has certainly grown on me over the three years it’s been out. The final track from the actual original album tracklist is a 12-minute dance number. “Somewhere Near Marsailles” plays out like an extended club single remix of a shorter song and again feels like an Exodus b-side single. The track has drive and groove to it but it also feels like there’s a tight five-minute version waiting to burst out too. I’ve no idea if there is, it just doesn’t evolve at a rate that warrants twelve minutes unless you are really aiming for clubs first. If you are, you’d structure your album a bit more around that idea. Instead, it’s three tracks at the end of the album – again feeling like an EP.
In addition to the ten album tracks, we also get bonus tracks which is lovely. This album is bilingual so we get a Japanese version of “Find Love”, an English version of “Face My Fears”. There’s also “Beautiful World: De Capo Version” which translates the epic electronica track into a band effort with a quick dance in the middle. There’s also the AJ Cook remix of “Face My Fears” too which does an excellent job of bringing drum n bass to a rolling, spinning twist on the piano riff. These are all great bonuses to have and feel like we’ve been given a load of b-sides for free.
I may have sounded a bit of a picky moose throughout this review but please don’t get me wrong – the music is still great. Whilst there are some tracks that could have trimmed for impact or made more dynamic to keep the runtime interesting, the vast majority of the album lands really well. It just doesn’t feel like an album – it feels like three separate EP’s put together. I’ve already started to break the album apart into segments to enjoy it in my own way better which feels odd to do but it has increased my enjoyment of it already. I’m delighted that Utada Hikaru seems to be finding a lot of fun in experimentation again. I hope that they continue to regain that quirky spirit again and that it doesn’t have to stay in a powerful outro. A whole song can be an experiment and the result will see something that feels more committed to its approach and perhaps more cohesive as an album. In the meantime, enjoy a wonderful collection of end credit bops!
Recommended track: One Last Kiss
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