Album review: Hikaru Utada - Distance

Album review: Hikaru Utada 宇多田 ヒカル - Distance | Random J Pop

If there is one album in Hikaru's discography which polarises fans, it would quite possibly be her second full length album Distance. The pressures of it being the follow up to one of the best selling Japanese albums of all time (in ASIAN HISTORY, BITCH) were high, but were masked by the fact that fans were just happy to have it. There was also the perpetuated feud with Ayumi Hamasaki. But we won't talk about her.

Distance is an album of its time and therefore features takes on the cross fusion of pop and R&B which was popular in the US around the time of its release and slowly making its way to Japan. To say that Distance is the one album of Hikaru Utada's which has aged the worst because of this, is to diminish not only what it represents within the timeline of Hikaru's career but on a wider scale within J-Pop.

Distance was an early adopter of drafting in US producers, years before it became a standard within J-Pop and also K-Pop. The names attached to this album had seen global commercial success with some of the biggest hits of the 2000s; so it was far from a case of second bests - or producers who were off the radar, but had 'that' hit with 'that' artist that was poppin' for that one single that nobody really remembers. The album opener "Wait & see (Risk)" and "Addicted to you" were produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, notable for their work with Janet Jackson; who had a number 1 hit on the Billboard hot 100 the year before Distance with her Nutty Professor bop "Doesn't really matter" and topped it months after Distance's release with "All for you". "Time limit" is produced by Rodney 'Darkchild' Jerkins, who helmed Destiny's Child's Grammy winning smash "Say my name" off the back of his work with Whitney Houston for her comeback album My love is your love, who was also working with Michael Jackson at the time for what would become his 6th studio album Invincible. Hikaru had booked the cream of the crop. Hikaru being paired with US producers didn't feel like a gimmick, but more of a natural circumstance, given that her debut album was so deep rooted in R&B-a-like sounds. It is a shame that the talents of the US producers wasn't extended to more of the album, because with the exception of "Can you keep a secret?" the R&B attempts which exists elsewhere on this album aren't as tight or polished and sound low key dreadful in comparison.

Distance was in-part, a refinement of what Hikaru had given us on First love with an occasional foray into sounds that would shape her future albums and become her signature sound. The latter of which is something Distance isn't oft given the credit for.

"Drama" and "Kettobase!" saw Hikaru dipping her toe into rock, sounds of which she would touch on again for "Uso na mitai na (I love you)" on Deep river and "Show me love not a dream" for Singles collection vol. 2. The remix of her song "Haytachi" would see its sound honed and refined to birth songs such as "Wings" from Ultra blue and "Kiss and cry" from Heart station. The off kilter, lounge vibes of "Parody" would manifest itself much further into Hikaru's career with the likes of "Me muero" and to much looser extents "Ore no kanojo" for her comeback album Fantôme almost 17 years later.

Distance on the surface seems like a slightly glossier version of First love with a few new bits here and there. But despite First love being the album that truly made Hikaru Utada and pretty much set up her entire career. Distance is the album which provided the foundations on which Hikaru would build her sound. Of course, none of us knew that at the time of its release. But it gives the album a new layer in retrospect.

Of course, it's easier to look back on an album and see the connections to all that came after. But how do these songs fare in isolation? In all honesty, not brilliantly. I like First love. It's an album that I only grew to really like over the past couple of years. But I still don't like Hikaru's vocals on 90% of the album, because she sounds bad. One of the benefits of Hikaru being paired with US super producers is that they can smooth the edges of her voice and funnel it into spaces and moments where it works and she sounds like she's in her element. So on songs like "Wait and see" and "Time limit" she sounds good enough. But on a bunch of the more alternative songs, she sounds pretty bad. The production on these songs is also really loose. If anything, these are the songs on Distance which have actually aged the worst; even if they are responsible for much of the music that Hikaru would go on to make years after.

Distance still holds from the perspective of it being Hikaru's album of growth. And whilst Distance was far from perfect and less consistent than First love, it showed that Hikaru Utada had more musical layers to her that we were yet to discover. But it's also still an album with some good songs. Is it better than First love? For me, no it isn't. Distance is one of Hikaru Utada's most inconsistent albums, for sure. The R&B tinged songs feel like they're in a tug-of-war with the more free, alternative sounding songs. Not just because the genre styles are disparate, but because the latter lacks the polish of the former. The resulting sound is that of Hikaru pulling herself in two different directions and giving two completely different sounds, and this is what hurts Distance more than anything else.

Album review: Hikaru Utada 宇多田 ヒカル - Distance | Random J Pop

But the real sticking point of this album for me is that Hikaru Utada's vocals don't sound that great. Hikaru didn't sound too hot on First love. So if you had no issue with her vocals on that album, then you won't have an issue with them here. Hikaru sounds better on some songs than others. On "Can you keep a secret?" and "Time limit" she sounds great. On every other song, she ranges from okay to really bad, because she's singing out of range and with no real understanding of her voice. It's what renders half of the album un-listenable for me. It's for this reason that I would love for Hikaru Utada to re-record or perform this album live, because I feel her more seasoned vocals would transform these songs in a big way.

Distance is the bridge album that connects Hikaru's beginnings on First love to everything we got from Deep river onward. On its own, it doesn't hold as strong as her other albums. But when you look at it within the grand scheme of Hikaru Utada's discography it accounts for a lot. More than we may initially have realised. Many of the songs which came after this album exist because of it. Deep river, Ultra blue, Heart station, Fantôme, even Exodus and This is the one are all refinements and evolutions of styles that Hikaru Utada had brought to the table on Distance.

I hold a special place in my heart for this album because it was the first album of Hikaru's that I'd listened to. But I can't rate this album highly for that alone. There are some great songs on this album, some of which still sound great now and stand the test of time. "Can you keep a secret?" is still a great, solid pop song. "Time limit" still feels fresh and "Distance" is still my lil' J-jam. But Distance is an album of songs that work better apart within contexts than they do together.


■ Can You Keep a Secret? 🏆
■ Wait & See (Risk) 🔥
■ Distance
■ For You 🔥
■ Time Limit 🔥