Album review: Hikaru Utada - Hatsukoi

Hatsukoi was a nice surprise, because I was not expecting it to come so soon after Fantôme. It's probably for the best. Had Hikaru released this album another 2 years down the line, I would have had to drag her for it. Because let me be clear right off the bat; this album is overwhelmingly Fantôme 2.0.

Hatsukoi feeling like an offshoot or another half of Fantôme comes with its merits. It inherits Hikaru's penchant for live instrumentation, to much greater and stunning effect on the likes of the album title track and "Good night". Lyrically and thematically it acts as a great companion. Where-as Fantôme was about loss and questioning love; Hatsukoi is an album about acceptance, finding love again and letting the new dick in your life know how much you appreciate it. If you were to re-order the tracklist of Fantôme so that it doesn't should like a shuffled mess and listen to it back-to-back with Hatsukoi, there is a story of a woman moving through the darkness into the light. But is a 'happy Fantôme' really want any of us wanted?

The issue with Hatsukoi isn't the themes of the songs. Hikaru retains her knack for taking a subject matter and twisting it in a way that's unconventional for a pop song, but realistic and true to life. She also still likes to write songs that most would relegate to B-sides or TV kids show themes (i.e "Pakuchi no uta"). It's pretty much Hikaru doing how she always do. The issue with the album is that is just...plateaus. It starts strong and finish strong, but there's this hazy section in the middle. There aren't any real peaks or troughs. Maybe the visceral sense of being thrown around from song to song and really feeling like you're going through it was heightened on Fantôme because of its buggered tracklist, which took you from one type of song to something completely different and contrasting. But at the very least, you felt like the album was shaking you every now and then, and this is a trait that most of Hikaru's albums have. But Hatsukoi doesn't.

There is no one bad song on this album and it does have its stand out moments. The album title track is gorgeous. Watching the behind the scenes footage of the album coming together you'll hear a completely different version of this song, and boy, am I glad that Hikaru made the call to take it in a different direction. The string arrangements on this song are stunning, especially towards the end. I've not loved a ballad from Hikaru this much since "Deep river".

Hikaru Utada 宇多田ヒカル - Hatsukoi | Random J Pop

The controversial "Chikai" is a pleasant surprise. The song not only works better on this album coming after the likes of "Hatsukoi", but after the off-kilter and seemingly time signature-less beginning of the song, it flourishes and pelts you with a "Sakura nagashi" style payoff at the 3 minute mark, where the song truly comes alive. "Chikai" isn't an easy song to take, but it showcases Hikaru's knack for steering from convention and her willingness to fuck with a song structure. Even making listeners wait 3 minutes before her shit clicks. Hikaru is at a stage in her career where she can afford to pull shit like this, but the fact that she has the audacity is admirable none the less and part of why she is who she is. As for how it ranks as a Kindgom Hearts theme, right now it's my least favourite. But it always takes me years to get into Hikaru's KH themes. I didn't like the album version of "Hikari" until 2 years after it released, when I'd completed Kingdom Hearts and I didn't really start to fall for "Passion" until around the time This is the one came out. I admire the fact that Hikaru never tries the same trick twice though. I love that "Chikai" is not even remotely like "Hikari" or "Passion".

I absolutely adored "Forevermore" when it was released as a single and it works even better on this album coming directly after "Chikai" in the tracklist, because it shares a similar theme and feels like a continuation of it. Especially with mentions of the heart, feeling heartless and being reborn; all things that play a part in Kingdom Hearts.

"Good night" feels almost like a lullaby, which gives it a lot of charm considering that Hikaru is a mother. Amidst a bunch of songs which for the most part are so piano and string focused, this really stood out to me because of the use of guitars. Probably one of my favourite songs on the album. I've wanted to hear guitars front and centre on a Hikaru Utada song to this extent ever since the amazing PLANiTb remix of "Beautiful world".

Hatsukoi is consistent, as all of Hikaru Utada's albums are. But the quality in production does vary between songs. Hikaru Utada's production style has two modes:
  • Rich and layered
  • My first Garabegband beat
"Play me a love song" and "Nokoriga" fall into the latter. The former suffers from this the most, as it kicks off the album and is then followed by the likes of "Anata", "Hatsukoi", "Chikai" and "Forevermore" - which are some of the richest and most densely produced songs on the album, if not, in Hikaru's entire discography. This is the same issue I had with "Michi" on Fantôme. A good song, but with incredibly weak production. "Play a love song", "Ozora de dakishimete" and "Too proud" all feel like they could have done with some additional production and refinement.

"Play a love song" is badly mixed. The kick drums, the bass and the low keys on the piano all bleed into this muddy sound which makes the chorus sound like a toneless drone. "Ozora de dakishimete" lacks texture. Even the inclusion of strings towards the end of the song do nothing to help it. If anything, they make the song sound worse, because they feel like strings thrown on a track for the sake of having strings on a track. "Too proud" needed an extra hand to bring out the richness of the song and make it hit a little harder. The repetition of Hikaru speaking the same monologue three times throughout the song feels like a bodged copy and paste job. This is one song which could have done with some live strings, a harpsichord and a harp for an old school Darkchild touch, to help give it the texture that it lacks.

There aren't any musical risks taken here, but there are steps in new directions that I wish Hikaru had leaned into a little more. "Forevermore" and "Hatsukoi" stir in ways that no other ballad of Hikaru's has before. "Chikai" unfolds in ways no Hikaru Utada song has before. And "Shittosarerubeki jinsei" feels effortlessly cool and seductive. As much as I like many of the other songs on this album, they don't offer anything different. I love "Forevermore", but "Kouya no ookami" gave me similar teas before. I love "Anata" too, but it's a brighter version of "Ore no kanojo" with a horn section.

Whilst Hikaru's previous album Fantome featured 3 guest features, Hatsukoi features only one. But one of Fantôme's guest features does return as co-writer on one of the songs. As with 2 of Fantome's guest features, Jevon is relatively unknown to the masses. But in a surprise twist, Jevon is not a Japanese artist, but a UK London based rapper. As a Londoner myself, it's so bizarre hearing a London rapper on a Hikaru Utada song that's sung in Japanese, but it works. As was the case on her guest rapper featured song on Fantôme, Hikaru's leaves Jevon a lot of space on the track to do as he pleases.

Hikaru manages to maintain her streak of delivering an album on which the singles fit perfectly. Even though some were released over a year before-hand. The one thing that irks me about the singles here, is that they're top loaded on the album. The likes of "Forevermore" and "Chikai" would have worked better a little further down the track list. Not only to spread the singles out so they aren't lumped together, but to help transition into the more sombre moments at the tail end of the album; "Ozora de dakishimete" sitting towards the end of the album and preceding "Yuunagi" feels completely off.

Hatsukoi feels like a nice mix of all of Hikaru's albums to date, including This is the one and Exodus. Fantôme still permeates this record with its use of live instrumentation and strings across many of its songs and the mood evoking overtones of each song. But each song has its own distinct vibe and pulls more from Hikaru's discography than Fantôme did. However, Fantôme feels much more distinct as an album. Hatsukoi reminds me a lot of like Heart station. A decent album, but one which sits in the shadow of what preceded it. An album which feels very safe for the most part and leaves you wanting so much more. Fantôme cashed in on fans being so glad and grateful that Hikaru had finally put out an album after almost 10 years. But the music on it was good and it felt different. Hikaru herself sounded different. There was an evolution of her sound, her songwriting and her vocals. Hatsukoi feels like a step forward, but also a step back. Her vocals don't strike me the same way as they did on Fantôme and the issues that I had with Fantôme are still present here.

Hikaru Utada's vocals on this album aren't anything special. They rarely are. To be frank, Hikaru doesn't have the best voice from a technical standpoint. But she knows how to emote and inject feeling into what she sings. But the short stick with her vocals on this album is down to the arrangements. Part of what I loved about Hikaru Utada's songs back when was that they always had cool harmonies and were well layered. The vocal production on her songs always sounded careful and considered. But the vocal production on this album is almost non-existent. There are odd moments on "Yuunagi" and "Shittosarerubeki jinsei". But that's about it. The lack of vocal arrangements on songs cause them to sound too sparse. Every single song on this album would have benefited from Hikaru giving them more than a one take main vocal and the odd two layer harmony here and there. It's a far cry from the likes of "Can you keep a secret?", "Travelling" and "A.S.A.P". She approaches the vocal arrangements here the same way she did for her Utada albums. Basic.

Hikaru Utada 宇多田ヒカル - Hatsukoi | Random J Pop

Hatsukoi doesn't feel like the body of work unto itself that some of Hikaru's other albums do, which may be due to it feeling like it pulls from all of her albums to date, with a heavy load of Fantôme. The one thing I admire about this album and Hikaru's approach to it, is that she finally seems to have converged Hikaru Utada with Utada to a greater extent. Hikaru had openly said that the Utada releases gave her an outlet to be more straight forward in her song-writing and you feel that on this album, as well as in the production of some of the songs, which stir in similar ways to songs on Exodus (i.e "Yūnagi" and "Shittosarerubeki jinsei"). The problem however is that these moments are too few here.

Hatsukoi feels more like a piece of Fantôme than it does its own beast and this is the biggest problem I have with it. I liked Fantôme. But I didn't want another Fantôme. I wanted something new.

Hatsukoi is a good album. But it just feels too safe and comfortable. I guess this was the intent, given this is Hikaru's full circle moment. I just wish it were more than this.


RATING: 6 / 10

Highlights:
■ Anata
■ Hatsukoi
■ Forevermore
■ Good night
■ Yūnagi
■ Shittosarerubeki jinsei

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