Utada Hikaru: HEART STATION

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.

Comments

  • Id says:

    I got the album a couple of days ago, and I’ve spent time listening to it in the car, and at home; it didn’t enthrall me from the start like “UB” did with it’s incredibly strong opening tracks, ponderous midsection, and artsy closer. I’m hesitant to condemn the album outright, because to me, this is similar to Shiina Ringo following “KZK” with “Kyoiku” – it’s really difficult to NOT be disappointed. I will concede that tracks like “Take 5”, “Stay Gold” and “Kiss and Cry” are really great tracks, combining some of the more atmospheric traits of “Ultra Blue” with the R&B qualities of her prior work from “Deep River” and “Distance”. I guess the irony lies in Utada’s little note to her fans, “From the Bottom of My Heart”, written on the inside of the CD tray, because I currently feel that that note should’ve been included in the liner notes of “Ultra Blue”. What a great album that was, so gutsy and earnest in tone all at once. Still, I’ll give this album more time; it’s far from average, and it may be a grower.
    One thing remains certain though, Utada Hikaru has displaced Shiina Ringo’s “Stoicism” as the cutest track I’ve ever heard from an artist. Makes me want to go to a Build a Bear workshop and squeeze the ever living shit out of my demonic creation haha.

  • Cosmo! says:

    So, weird confession time. I’ve been reading your blog for about three years now, ever since my Japanese girlfriend got me hooked on her favorite music in our freshman year of college. Reading your takes on albums by Love Psychedelico, UA, Cocco, Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Chara, Number Girl, Tokyo Jihen and Shiina Ringo (my personal favorite) has been a real treat because, while it’s always easy for me to read up on my favorite Western artists, I can’t say the same about my Japanese ones. In other words, this site was one of very few insights for me into the Japanese music scene and I’m really grateful for that.
    I’ve more or less agreed with your reviews for the few years I’ve been lurking, and that remains the same for this review (stacked into the “less” pile). I don’t think it’s quite the regression that you do, though. Deep River (in my opinion and despite its popularity) is Utada’s worst album to date because it tries too hard to cover all its bases and falls short because of that lack of focus. First Love established her popularity, Distance clinched the deal and proved that she really does know what she’s doing, and Deep River should have evolved her sound and featured much more experimentation than it did (although Sakura Drops counts some towards that).
    Exodus (my favorite album thus far) was just so off-the-wall and different than a lot that was out at the time and proved her to be a risk-taker whose experiments would be at times quirky and at others phenomenal.
    Ultra Blue continued this trend with a more focused sound, but the two old tracks tripped her up halfway through and marred a damn-near perfect flow. For me, Heart Station one-ups Ultra Blue in that the material flows so easily and never feels jerky (even the segue between Take 5 and Boku wa Kuma works in that life-after-death sense). She’s using her voice in an incredible way with all the layering and effects and her ability to write a killer melody/hook hasn’t been lost.
    I can definitely understand why you’d prefer Ultra Blue, though, because that album seems to have more stand-out “wow” tracks than this one (This is Love, Keep Tryin’, One Night Magic, Be My Last and Passion can really arrest one’s attention). Still, its somber tone bogged it down at certain points, no thanks in small part to the two aforementioned old tracks, and it’s nice to hear Utada stop taking herself so seriously (by her own admission) and writing music that feels fresh and like nothing else being churned out.
    Sorry for the obscenely lost post, but it’s been three years in the making!

  • NemesisVex says:

    Welcome Cosmo!
    I guess the two old tracks on ULTRA BLUE you’re talking about are “Colors” and “Dare ka no Negai ga Kanau Koro”. I don’t think I was too bothered by those tracks because it had been so long since I heard them by the time ULTRA BLUE was released, I didn’t remember what they really sounded like. But “Colors” can seem a bit antiquated next to all the other tracks.
    I wonder if I would have liked HEART STATION more if I hadn’t gotten so familiar with the singles. It probably doesn’t come across enough in the review, but I have more issue with Utada’s willingness to put most of her material out on singles. She doesn’t record much in the way of b-sides, and when an album finally arrives, it almost feels anti-climactic. She could create more demand by limiting supply.
    And it’s interesting you bring up “Sakura Drops” — I think that’s the earliest example of the sound she has now. Perhaps “Hikari”, as well. But I’m still not fond of Deep River.

  • Cosmo! says:

    I completely agree that she needs to include (or record?) more b-sides and stop treating albums like glorified singles collections. Hell, I’m surprised Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words) wasn’t included as a second bonus track. I just hope that the Be My Last single-song single was a one-time misstep that won’t ever be repeated.

  • Kevin says:

    For me, “dareka no negai ga kanau koro” served as a grounder mid-way through the disc, with its piano-centric sound a breather from the synthesized beeps and bops that marked the disc up to then; it also helps that the lyrics are some of Utada’s best to date.
    As for “HEART STATION”, I think the main thing is that it’s overall quite a steady album in terms of writing and arranging, whereas “ULTRA BLUE” had really pronounced ups and downs (I thought, and still think, that “Making Love” is one of the lowest quality (not worst) album tracks she’s ever put out, especially after “This Is Love” and “BLUE”). That said, I do think the singles for both albums are generally on par with each other – “HEART STATION” sounds like the flipside of “Keep Tryin'”, while the ambience of “Passion” is somewhat replicated in “Stay Gold”, and the drama of “Be My Last” manifests itself in the morose “Prisoner Of Love”. And the ballad version of “Flavor Of Life” must surely count as the most old-school Hikki-sounding song she’s ever made for herself in recent years.