Album review: Hikaru Utada - Deep river

Album review: Hikaru Utada - Deep river | Random J Pop
Deep river is an album which holds a fair bit of significance. After all, it is the album which features the song that catapulted Hikaru Utada onto American and European radars: "Hikari" ( better known to many of us as "Simple and clean"). It's also the album where the Hikaru Utada we know and love now began to truly emerge; bringing forth to the table what many other J-Pop ho's were failing to: songs of substance without following a popular trend.

Amongst a Japanese soundscape where many female acts were either sounding the same, or beginning to jump on the US R&B bandwagon, Hikaru took her shit in the other direction. Deep river draws with its sweeping, organic and heart felt sound - a departure from the templated electronic commercial sound of Hikaru's Distance album. The slow shift in sound is evident from the first second of the album. "Sakura drops" is a strange way to kick start the album, as it sounds like the kind of song you'd expect to hear mid way through. But it does a stellar job of throwing you head first into the sense of wonderment and exhilaration many of the songs on Deep river evoke. Hikaru's vocals sound so free and vulnerable, and it colours the song beautifully. "Letters" is just love for me, but it wasn't always the case. For some reason I always used to skip this track when ever I'd play the album. I have no idea why. My loss, because "Letters" was an absolute gem of a song. The percussion, the acoustic guitars, piano and ethereal synths which underlie the song give it real sense of exhilaration. It's such a summer song. Every time it plays I just think of beaches and shit. "Letters" gives off the exact same vibe as the album track "Travelling", except with a more organic feel due to the percussive instrumentations. A stunning song. "Hikari" finishes off the album. And whilst it initially it feels like a tagged on bonus track, it actually rounds the album off nicely. I preferred the PlanitB remix initially, and barely played the original. But somewhere along the way I fell for the original in a big way. It truly is a great song, and the one that many Western fans will probably remember Hikaru for. It's a shame that the song "Colors" was recorded after Deep river was released, as it would have fit the album better than it did Ultra blue; sitting nicely between "Deep river" and "Letters".

A fair few of the albums cuts reveal that Hikari is still that partial to a bit of fun and something with a fast tempo you can throw some elbows to. "Travelling" is one of my all time favourite Hikaru Utada songs. It's wonderfully upbeat and never fails to put a smile on my face. Hikaru trued to match the same sense of fun and energy with her later songs "One night magic" and "Celebrate" - but she's never been able to touch "Travelling". Hikaru's vocals are strong, the vocal production is stunning and her sing ♪ Can you keep it up? I'd quite like to ♪ during the final refrain makes me want to touch myself. The song is made even better by its amazing music video. "Uso mitai na (I love you)" has Hikaru workin' out a bit of rock. Hikaru doesn't have the best rock voice, but she just about manages to pull the song off. Before Max Martin and Dr. Luke popularized the pop meets thrashy punk rock sound with songs such as Kelly Clarkson's "Since U been gone", Hikaru was already on it 2 years prior. I can't say that I'd like Hikaru to do more songs like this, especially when the music peaks and valleys so much throughout the song and the guitars tend to grate on the whole. As a cool quirk though, the song uses the same melody on it's chorus as "Simple and clean".

Things slow down and get stripped right back for "Deep river", and it's the one song that sticks on the album for me. It's minimalistic sound highlights Hikaru's vocals beautifully. Up until this album, Hikaru had been known for featuring on rich, layered productions - making you wonder whether she would still be able to keep afloat on a song without so much surrounding her vocals. "Deep river" is the answer. Yes, she can. And she heartfelt with every word she sings. The minimalism carries on with "Final distance", which is a re-working of the song "Distance" from Hikaru's album of the same name. The song was re-arranged in memory of a fan of hers who had been killed. This song marked something Hikaru would soon trend and do on later releases: creating 2 versions of the same song - each taking on an entirely different one. I loved "Distance", and have to confess to preferring it to "Final distance". But the sentiment behind the song is a beautiful thing, and Hikaru does a great job flipping the original song with all new vocals, and arrangements which sound very Enya like.

Deep river does not ditch Hikaru's R&B roots completely, something which fans of First love and Distance will greatly appreciate. First comes "Shiawase ni narou" which sounds very much like First love Hikaru meeting Distance Hikaru in the middle. To begin with the song sounds all nice and pretty, but once the chorus comes in, a dark streak emerges which punctuates the whole song - turning it into something almost tragic that's about to fall apart. If I were to compare it to one of Hikaru's later songs, I'd compare it to "Prisoner of love". "Play ball" is nice and back song with it's echoed percussion and occasional hard hitting 808's. As with "Shiawase ni narou" the song swings back and forth between really light and pretty, and dark and urgent. Hikaru's vocals aren't all that strong here, but the ambience of the production and the arrangements save her. "A.S.A.P" is an album standout. It has such a big sound to it, that it immediately catches your attention. The production is flawless, and the chorus is catchier than H1N1. Why this song was not picked up as a drama or film theme song, I haven't the foggiest! As with "Shiawase ni narou" and "Play ball" - the whole song is stamped with an urgency and a darkness which contrasts with the prettiness of Hikaru's vocals. The refrain being sung until the song fades is a small touch which catches me every time and has me rewinding 200 odd times before I finally decide to just let the song finish! I love the harmonies and her English. The song has a sense of familairity due to it featuring a similar melody to the theme of The young and the restless, a theme Mary J. Blige sampled for her song "No more drama".

The one thing I noticed instantly when I first listened to this album was how much stronger Hikaru's vocals were in comparison to First love and Distance. As nice and refreshing as Hikaru's vocals were, they always sounded a little unstable. Deep river see's Hikaru singing with a great deal more stability and control over her vocals; sounding strong on notes on which she was weak on with past albums. She still sounds a little raw and rough around the edges in places. But Hikaru's vocal game is definitely a step up. Distance had Hikaru sounding perfectly layered in all the right places, where-as Deep river see's her playing around with the arrangements a little more: giving the songs a richer sound and making her voice music in itself. "Sakura drops", "Travelling" and "A.S.A.P" showcase this to the best effect.

Deep river is an odd album to take at first, because much like its album cover it's sound is black and white, light and dark. The album swings between these styles almost a little too casually, often within a song as opposed to between tracks. But it does a great job of highlighting how joy and pain are both sides of the same coin, and Hikaru's ability to really play on this and do so brilliantly via quirky story telling and song writing.

Deep river is the album where the Hikaru Utada we know and love now truly began to emerge. And I think it's with this album that Hikaru truly found her sound. As much as I loved her sophomore effort Distance - Deep river was an album I respected in so many regards because the music actually made you feel something as you listened to them. Plus it holds great weight to me as it was the first Hikaru Utada album I had bought and was pretty much the soundtrack to my summer of 2002.

Hikaru's third set is a great addition to the Hikaru Utada collection if you're missing it, and a great album for Hikaru Utada newcomers. And to squash all doubt for you "Hikari" and "Simple and cleans" fans may have concerning about copping this album, I'll just say this: If you liked "Hikari", you'll love everything else this album has to offer.

Ask me what my favourite Hikaru Utada album is and I'll swing back and forth between this and Ultra blue - but will always settle for Deep river in the end. I've just played it so many times.

Album highlights:
■ Sakura drops
■ Travelling ★ J's fave
■ Shiawase ni narō | 幸せになろう
■ Deep river
■ Letters
■ A.S.A.P
■ Uso mitai na I love you | 嘘みたいな I love you
■ Hikari | 光


  1. Most of these songs are on the Single Collection Vol. 1 I bought off iTunes. I'm missing a few of them though.

  2. Well, my ginger nut... *puts on stupid voice* That's because half of the album was released as singles. D'uh... *knocks on Junlee's head* ;P You're probably missing a few of the other Deep river songs because they... *puts on stupider voice* weren't releashed az singowls! *pulls a face* ;P

    The Singles collection vol. 1 was a good set. Especially for Western fans who off the back of Kingdom Hearts loved "Hikari" / "Simple and clean" and weren't sure about buying Hikaru Utada's studio album, but were willing to go for a compilation.

    For me, it was just about "Colors". I used to 2,6,7,8 step the hell out of that chorus when it kicked in. I love that song.

  3. *evil eyes J*

    I was JUST making a point by saying that I need to listen to the other songs. :P

  4. Then go make your point on iTunes and buy the other half of the album *points Junlee to the direction of the iTunes store*

  5. "Deep River" isn't on US iTunes. :( That's why I was regulated to the Singles Collection.

  6. Damn you!!!!!!!!! I bet you took that just to spite me! LOL!

  7. Well this review was a nice surprise :-)
    I bought this album with 'This is the One' and I always find myself playing a track or 2 from this album everytime I'm playing my ipod. It is a very good album, I love "Uso mitai na (I love you)" and "Hikari", but I do prefer Ultra Blue - it just has more songs that struck a chord with me or I've loved longer.

  8. I was actually thinking of buying this over the last couple of days because i've been playing the hell outta final distance and deep river lol
    I have the singles collection, ultra blue and heart station but its like deep river was the springboard that gave those albums so i really wanna check it out.
    p.s yeah WOW colours is just AMAZING one of my favourite songs ever, if people took non english language singers into account when talking about the greats then i think utada would definately be up there even though she's so young her sound is so amazing.

  9. @ lilithdarkstrom: You do not know how close it is between Deep river and Ultra blue *lol* Seriously. I LOVE that album like crazy. And it's one of those albums where every time I play it, it's like I'm falling in love with the songs all over again. I just love the vibe and how the songs instantly connect with you before you even know exactly what the songs are about. "This is love" still amazes me to this day, I just love that song.

    But Deep river is the album I play the most, and the first album where I was 100% certain I was always going to be a Hikaru Utada fan ;)


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