15 years later... Looking back on Hikaru Utada's Exodus

15 years later... Looking back on Hikaru Utada's Exodus | Random J Pop

It's been 15 whole years since Hikaru Utada released her debut English language album Exodus.

I remember the first time I heard Exodus, along with how I felt at that exact moment. An overwhelming feeling of not really knowing what to think, with hints of what may have been disappointment. It just didn't seem like the best showcase of Hikaru Utada. Even now I still don't think that it is on a first listen. But Exodus is an album with layers and one that you really need to sit with. Some fans got it immediately. With others it took time. I fell somewhere in-between.

Hikaru's music up until the release of Exodus was always layered, but there was still an immediate accessibility to all of her music that you could latch onto; even if there was a language barrier and you didn't get the ins and outs of what was going on lyrically. Exodus was a different beast entirely. You couldn't consume it as you did First love, Distance or Deep river - which was probably where I went wrong.

For me, it took years to truly discover just how good an album Exodus was and is, and even now I feel like I'm still discovering it.

It even took me a while to get around to having an unflinching opinion on it to be able to review it. I reviewed Exodus 10 years ago, 5 years after it had released. And in case you're in a TLDR kinda mood, the two things I knocked the album for the hardest were Hikaru's vocals and the production. With the exception of the Timbaland productions, Exodus sounds kinda ragged, and this was a shock for me coming off of Hikaru's Japanese releases, which featured such rich vocal and music production across the board.

Whilst I still stand by 90% of what I had written in my review, if I were to do a write-up of Exodus now, I would definitely score it higher and would change closing paragraph.
The extent of Hikaru Utada's talents aren't showcased to maximum effect on Exodus. Fans of her Japanese material will know Hikaru is capable of, and let this album off on the merits of knowing that Hikaru is still an amazing artist because of what she has brought to the table prior to this albums' release. But for those whom Exodus is their first introduction to Hikaru Utada, they may find the album underwhelming, badly produced and call Hikaru out for not being anything special. Still, if you're looking for an album which is different and doesn't pander to gimmicks, you could do a lot worse. Exodus doesn't compare to any of Hikaru's Japanese language albums.
Hikaru Utada's intent with Exodus wasn't for it to sound like anything that she'd done for her then Toshiba-EMI releases. Hikaru had vented that she felt trapped and as though she couldn't do anything without scrutiny in Japan and within her music, which formed the basis for Exodus. It was her outlet to do all of the things that she knew she wouldn't be able to do for her Japanese langauge albums. At least not yet. 

Exodus sits nicely alongside Hikaru's Japanese albums because it sounds nothing like them, but at the same time works as a companion. Exodus acts as a side quest to the main adventure that is Hikaru's Japanese language albums. A nice deviation which also happens to add to the overall story of Hikaru as an artist. It gave an insight into who Hikaru was in a way that her Japanese releases didn't. It gave us a fuller picture of who she was as a person, as an artist and as a songwriter.

There was a frankness to Exodus which doesn't always come through in Hikaru's music or J-Pop in general. J-Pop lyrics can be quite superfluous and oft ambiguous, leaving a lot to interpretation. The focus is often on how lyrics sound within a melody as opposed to what's necessarily being said. With Exodus, Hikaru took the opportunity to put songs out where she was direct in what she wanted to say. Not only because that's how music is in the West, but because she'd never been able to do as such before. Exodus for Hikaru Utada was a form of liberation, and that sense of liberation was felt by fans too. Not just liberation in finally being able to experience a Hikaru Utada album in English, but liberation from what everybody else in music was releasing. 

But Exodus also did something special. It showed a rawness of character. It showed rawness of many characters in fact. Very often when pop stars release music the songs exist in this realm of fantasy. Even though they may be singing about very normal things that everybody experiences, the song being sung by this fantastical pop star with an extravagant video uproots it completely. But there is something very tangible about the songs on Exodus. The 'My first GarageBand beat' vibe of some of the songs made you think that maybe you could make this type of album. Hikaru singing about hooking up with a dirty blonde Texan was affirmation that it was okay for you to be a hoe. "Exodus '04" was a beckoning that you should take that trip, go to that Uni that's hundreds of miles from home. Hearing Hikaru mention Edgar Allen Poe let you know that being a bookworm is something you can wear on your sleeve and reference as you see fit. Hikaru's declaration that maybe she doesn't want to have a baby was a message to women that it's perfectly okay to not want to be a mother in a world that dictates that it's a rite of womanhood. There was something in Exodus for everybody. Even if you weren't asking the question, Exodus had an answer.

Exodus didn't sound like anything else at the time of its release - something that gave the album charm, but also contributed to it not really catching on with the mainstream. At the time, Exodus sounded dated to me because of the production. But in 15 years it's aged pretty well. Brilliantly in some cases. There have been many sounds which have come along which did what Exodus had already done years prior. When the Euro House Pop phase came along in 2006 off the back of Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack", Hikaru had already done it with "Let me give you my love", which was also produced by Timbaland and a then unknown Danja. When Kanye West came along with his minimalist Taiko and 909 heavy production style for his album 808s & heartbreak and its follow up My beautiful dark twisted fantasy, Hikaru had already done it with "Devil inside". When women in Pop and R&B started releasing songs about turning the gender tables (Beyonce's "If I were a boy" and Ciara's "Like a boy") Hikaru Utada had already given us "You make me want to be a man". When everybody started embracing whimsical Pop, Hikaru had done it with "Easy breezy". Even now, with artists like Billie Eilish doing mood pop with a social commentary, that was basically the whole of Exodus. Exodus was an album released at a time when many of us weren't ready for it. It was ahead of its time in a way that none of Hikaru's Japanese albums were.

15 years later... Looking back on Hikaru Utada's Exodus | Random J Pop

I sometimes wonder if Hikaru herself was ever ready to truly embrace what she'd done on Exodus, despite it being of her own making; because she distanced herself greatly from it. When she released its follow up This is the one in 2009, there was not a shred of Exodus' sound, which signalled that maybe the commercial failure of Exodus in North America was the reason for the abandonment. And because Utada and Hikaru Utada were seen and marketed as different artists to an extent, the cross pollination of sounds into her Japanese releases didn't seem like something that would ever happen. But when Hikaru returned from her self imposed exodus, she worked the sounds of the album into her comeback album Fantôme ("Boukyaku") and its follow up Hatsukoi ("Yuunagi" and "Shittosarerubeki jinsei"). It felt fitting and poignant. Hikaru stepped away from music to find herself, and upon her return, despite having lost something precious to her, she seemed far more whole. Utada and Hikaru Utada became one and the same and that was reflected through her music.

At the time I didn't fully appreciate Exodus. But in retrospect, it's exactly what it needed to be. It's also what all of Hikaru Utada's albums pretty much are: timeless. But it was bold at a time when boldness didn't pay off. And it was weird at a time when everybody in the mainstream was trying to conform and hide their own weirdness. Exodus was Hikaru Utada being unapologetically herself and doing what she wanted to in the moment, with very little regard for the fact that she was a huge mega star in Japan with a legacy of music and a mountain of expectation that came with that. She also didn't seem to be bothered about having this thing sound commercial in order for it to sell more than 12 units. Hikaru Utada went into Exodus like it was a damn mixtape and I admire that now in a way I didn't back in 2004. It was an exercise in doing whatever the fuck you want to do for no reason other than you just want to.

Exodus also forced me to give artists a wider berth and to not be so dismissive when an artist does something which is different from their usual MO. Because sometimes what we see as different is just something that's been in plain sight the whole entire time. It just wasn't being pointed out to us.

Of course Hikaru Utada was going to give us Exodus. She was never going to give us anything else. I still wish the album were better produced. But I've fully accepted that it's a bloody good album, despite its rough edges. And time has been far kinder to it than I ever imagined it would when I first heard it 15 years ago.

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