Utada Hikaru’s 2004 English-language debut, Exodus, came at a transitional time for the singer creatively.
The reliable template she forged in Japan over the course of three albums showed signs of wear, and what works at home risks getting lost in translation abroad. (Although for the multi-national Utada, where is home? And where is abroad?)
So she underwent a drastic sonic makeover, creating a heavy-handed work that bent too far backward to distance itself from what had gone before. Beneath all the sonic sizzle of Exodus was a songwriter reaching the end point of a style.
It would mean the beginning of another.
But first, what to make of This Is the One, Utada’s second English-language? To put it succinctly, the pendulum has swung the other way with equal force.
Instead of being over-produced, it’s actually under-produced. Nowhere is it more apparent than on the bonus tracks included on the CD.
Two of Utada’s Japanese songs were translated into English for the soundtrack of the game Kingdom Hearts. "HIkari" became "Simple and Clean", while "Passion" became "Sanctuary". The rich production of "Sanctuary" only highlights how thin "Mi Muero" and "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence — FYI" sound.
I don’t listen to Beyoncé and Rhianna to know how the Swedish production team StarGate usually operate, but their work on This Is the One is unimpressive.
If Utada and Sking U did "Come Back to Me" on their own, it would probably have more moving parts than just a lazy drum beat and piano with strings. "This One (Crying Like a Child)" sounds like StarGate studied First Love but couldn’t quite match it. Their best work is "Apple and Cinnamon", probably the only song that services Utada’s hooks decently.
C. "Tricky" Stewart does a marginally better job, giving "Taking My Money Back" enough swagger to make the Utada’s performance convincing. Not sure if "Automatic Part II" was a necessary sequel, but "Dirty Desire" makes sense as a follow-up single.
In the same way the over-production of Exodus hid the songs’ weakness, the under-production of This Is the One doesn’t do enough to highlight the songs’ strengths.
And Utada is still writing strong.
Her two Japanese albums following Exodus showcased the singer at the top of her game. Utada has always been considered mature for her age, but now, she actually is mature.
It’s too easy to picture "Apple and Cinnamon", "This One (Crying Like a Child)" and "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence — FYI" (which is a Sakamoto Ryuichi cover) as completely different — perhaps better — songs, had she recorded them for the Japanese audience.
As much as I’d like to see Utada achieve success in the States, she hasn’t yet found the right collaborators to localize her music for America. The translation is still getting lost.