From a creative perspective, Utada Hikaru hasn’t produced a steady, consistent output. And that’s not a bad thing.
Utada released her debut album First Love at the age of 17, and from the start, she was described as "mature". She established a high mark that even she has had trouble surpassing.
Her second album Distance threw in some clever experiments while not alienating her fan base, all the while hinting at some hidden depths.
Utada’s third album, Deep River, was rushed to keep the momentum of career afloat, while her English-language debut, Exodus, boxed her into an incongruous, American sound, absolutely at odds with her writing.
Without the missteps of those last two albums, her fourth Japanese-language album, Ultra Blue, wouldn’t be the definitive creative statement it is. Seven years into an incredibly successful and lucrative career, Utada Hikaru has recorded the album she always had in her.
Ultra Blue is the sound of Utada coming of age, and it’s her strongest work so far.
That much was clear with the singles released in the months preceding the album.
On first listen, "Be My Last" is an indescript song, with acoustic guitars and minimal synthesizers filling it out. Repeat listens reveal the song as incredibly poignant and haunting. (Definitely my favorite Utada song.)
CD Japan employed extreme superlatives to describe "Keep Tryin’", calling it a revolutionary single. It’s not, but it is an extremely catchy tune and certainly one of Utada’s brightest moments.
"Passion", meanwhile, works marching beats, electric guitar and ambient synthesizers into an atmospheric collage as tense as it is coherent.
"Passion" serves as the calling card for the album’s overall sound — incredibly rhythmic, deeply ethereal and slightly rocking.
Rather than compartmentalize the disparate influences on her music — there’s no token rock track on the level of "Drama" or "Uso Mitai na I Love You" — she’s woven them together into a signature imprint.
Half of the songs on Ultra Blue were released as singles, and long-time fans who scooped up those releases may feel cheated by the quantity of new material. But the quality of those new tracks, most of them programmed for the first half of the album, really shine.
The synthetic strings and litling piano that introduces "Blue" slowly builds to a busy, soaring chorus. "Nichiyoo no Asa" is both bouncy and dark.
"Making Love" manages to show an influence of electronica without actually employing any electronica clichés.
"Kairo" is perhaps the most impressive track — seemingly minimal, the song bursts into a dramatic conclusion that edges her slightly closer to the orchestral excess of the Flaming Lips.
Even the lightest tracks on the album, "Wings", "Colors" and "One Night Magic", serve to anchor the more ambitious moments. The Back Horn’s Yamada Masahi is seriously underutilizied on "One Night Magic" unfortunately.
From start to finish, Ultra Blue is tight. It’s Utada’s most forceful album, fashioning a sonic palette as moving emotionally as it is physically.
Utada Hikaru has finally arrived.