If her album releases are any indication, Utada Hikaru would make a lousy poker player. Between double-A sides and coupling tracks that turn into album tracks, she has a habit of revealing her hand before it’s ever shown.
Seven of the 13 tracks on HEART STATION were released as singles, and after the release of "Prisoner of Love" in May, she will have made 60 percent of the album available.
The Japanese music industry still adheres to a model to which the US industry is heading back — driven by singles with albums treated as after-thoughts.
This tactic is good for building hype where it’s warranted. It certainly worked (on me) for Utada’s previous album ULTRA BLUE.
The singles from ULTRA BLUE showed a real maturity in Utada’s writing — the poignancy of "Be My Last", the futuristic tribal feel of "Passion". By the time the album arrived, the clarity hinted by the singles revealed much stronger material.
Personally, the singles leading up to HEART STATION didn’t grab me as solidly. The hint of experimentation in the ULTRA BLUE singles was scaled back for a more straight-forward approach. Don’t get me wrong — "Beautiful World" and the title track are great songs with terrific melodies, but the music needed just a little push into something more adventurous to set them apart. In short, they feel safe.
A diligent listener will have heard these songs, and the fact the album stashes them all at the start — with a reprise of "Flavor of Life" tacked on at the end for thoroughness — gives HEART STATION a miscellaneous feel, as if these were the better outtakes from the previous album’s recording sessions.
The second half of the album is where Utada attempts to get creative. The "Gentle Beast Interlude" segues straight into "Celebrate", while "Take 5" abruptly cuts off at the end. I haven’t gotten around to looking for a translation of the lyric to understand the approach, but I admire the gutsiness of it. Putting a cute lullaby, "Boku wa Kuma", right after it pretty much cancels the effect.
Thankfully, Utada has gotten past the need to sound well-rounded, throwing in token rock tracks among Latin rhythms and urban beats. The ethereal sound that pulls against the pop beats gets an extended treatment on HEART STATION, and it’s a style that suits Utada’s earnest singing well.
And as harsh as this review may seem till this point, HEART STATION still exhibits the maturity she started to show after the release of her English-language album, Exodus. As popular as her first three albums were, they come across as works of a young girl wanting to please her fans.
HEART STATION and ULTRA BLUE, on the other hand, are works of a writer grappling with her voice, producing something truer to herself. Utada still has to please her fans but not at the expense of own muse.
HEART STATION is a good album, but it doesn’t warrant the five-star rating from Rolling Stone Japan. (I’ll concede four, maybe 4 1/2.) Despite some missteps, it’s still far and away some of her strongest material.
Now all that Utada has to do is stop showing her hand before the round is finished.