Utada Hikaru, one of the most influential Japanese artists of all time, is finally back in the music scene after a six-year long hiatus. Whatever the reason that brought the singer to halt activities in 2010 is, it’s a choice that’s always been seen with respect by the audience, that anxiously waited for her to come back singing. From the way she tried to distance herself from the music industry, the feeling is that she just needed space to take care of her personal life, to see new things. Or, simply put, to live.
We all know what happened during these years: from the tragic passing of her mother, to her marriage and birth of her first child, Hikki’s life went through different stages, episodes that are sources of feelings and fuel for an artist. And this is what Fantôme is all about: life and feelings, vividly represented throughout the eleven tracks composing her long-awaited comeback album.
Kicking off with Michi, Hikki brings back the J-pop goodness that we’ve loved in the past, with a simple structure, catchy melodies, and an on-point vocal performance which make this a greatly enjoyable opener. It’s what she does best, and is a great piece to mark the beginning of her new era. Bringing jazzy influences to the table, the following Ore no Kanojo is a slow number that builds up through bass lines and piano chords, as Utada’s voice leads to a final hook that adds orchestral elements on top of a pleasant progressive structure. Slower songs like this have the heaviest influence on the record, and they all work well. While the ballad Ningyo does a great job in exposing the singer’s expressiveness, Manatsu no Tooriame brings a new side of Hikki; a side that’s emotional, filled with loneliness and sadness, where the atmospheric instrumental work is wrapped up by the singer’s heart-breaking performance.
For this new album, Hikki didn’t miss the chance to join forces with some relevant Japanese artists, that make a solid contribution to Fantôme. Sheena Ringo’s unique voice fits greatly in Nijikan Dake no Vacance, a strong pop number that exposes both artists’ talents and expressiveness, featuring one of the catchiest hooks of the entire record. Tomodachi, featuring Nariaki Obukuro, is a light-hearted R’n’B number coupled with acoustic chords, delicately facing the theme of homosexuality seen from the perspective of a person falling in love with a friend. Last but not least, the atmospheric Boukyaku steals the spotlight among the collaborative tracks of the record. KOHH’s rapping is greatly balanced and surprisingly emotional, and alternated to Hikki’s voice, creates an interesting contrast to a track that makes atmosphere its strong point, and the result is beautiful.
Fantôme isn’t free of flaws though. The main issue is in the general flow of the record, that gets abruptly interrupted on several occasions, particularly with Kouya no Ookami, clearly the less inspired track of the record, that kicks in like a punch in the ears after the dramatic Manatsu no Tooriame. This happens more than once during the course of the tracklist, and it’s a shame that a problem that could have been easily avoided with a smarter placement of tracks, can stain the overall flow of a record filled with good songs.
Worth its own paragraph, the masterpiece Sakura Nagashi closes the album perfectly, standing out for an incredible vocal performance by Utada, a wonderful instrumental progression, and a melancholic (and somehow sweet) vibe. It’s one of those songs that speaks for itself, and in all honesty, words don’t do it justice. Just prepare your tissues for when the drums kick in halfway through the track.
Six years is a long period in the music industry. Trends change, as well as marketing and the target of labels. Utada Hikaru comes back aware of the changes that occurred during her absence, and instead of adapting herself to this, she simply does what she can do best- good pop music. The result is a record that’s clearly focused on slow and reflective numbers, but leaves a sufficient space for upbeat tracks at the same time, creating a nice balance despite its inconsistent flow.
Fantôme is nothing but an honest and sincere portrait of Utada Hikaru, a woman full of love, melancholy, and hope. This record is not the new Deep River or Heart Station, nor is it her new-era masterpiece, and it would be wrong to pretend that it is. Because she’s not that girl anymore, but a mature woman that, now more than ever, has a lot of stories to sing and a myriad of feelings to convey. And that’s all we want from her.
Words by Alessandro Tofanelli
Release Date: 28/09/2016
Label: Universal Music
Get at: CDJapan.co.jp