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Album Review: Hikaru Utada - First Love

Album Review: Hikaru Utada - First Love | Random J Pop

First Love.

I went through a period of not really liking this album, and even thinking it was bad (save for a song or two), to really falling for it. Because of the way that time seems to be repeating itself within music and everything that's old being new, First Love has gone from sounding like an album of its time, to feeling current, to feeling completely timeless. But looking back on this album retrospectively, with Hikaru coming full circle with Hatsukoi (which translates to 'First Love') 20 years later, this album hits a little different. Because you realise that whilst Hikaru herself has changed as a person and an artist, so much about her remains the same. Beautifully so.

Album Review: Hikaru Utada - First Love | Random J Pop

Whilst the album title track that launched Hikaru's career into the stratosphere is pretty typical by J-Pop standards, the album as a whole is not. Released in 1999, First Love stuck out like a sore thumb in a year of J-Pop which consisted of Mr. Children, Glay, Ami Suzuki, Speed and a then debuting Ayumi Hamasaki. Whilst everybody was putting out albums which sat within an established J-Pop mould, Hikaru Utada's First Love set its own and would unknowingly usher in a trend. Most of the songs sounded like they were primed more for US radio than Japanese airwaves. Hikaru sang low on songs when all of the other girls were singing high. Then there was the fact that Hikaru Utada was 15 years old when she recorded it. A young Japanese girl releasing an album like First Love was pretty unprecedented in J-Pop, but a very natural thing for Hikaru, who grew up in the US and cited Aaliyah as a huge influence on her sound back then - Aaliyah herself also debuting at a young age, with an album that sounded nothing like what any of her fellow teen peers were putting out. First Love created a shift and set a standard for not only debut albums in J-Pop, but raised the question what J-Pop as a genre even was any more. First Love at its core is R&B, but does feature some of the characteristics which were typical of J-Pop at a point in time and still prevalent in it now.

Hikaru Utada broke many barriers with First Love. Expanding what J-Pop is, as well as shifting the perception of girls in J-Pop. For a debut artist to be so young and write every song on their album was not a common thing. Let alone a 15 year old girl writing a song like "First Love" which managed to garner fans across generations - leading to Hikaru Utada breaking the notion that a J-Pop artist is only locked to a specific demographic. From the young girls with the kawaii keitai, to the salary men, to the elderly; everybody knew "Automatic" and "First Love" and knew who Hikaru Utada was. And many of them are still fans of her now.

From the beginning it seemed that Hikaru Utada was destined to dance to the beat of her own drum and not be the artist that the Japanese music business deemed that girls should be. Something which is still true of her to this day, given the unorthodox (by Japanese standards) way in which her career has been handled and played out.

But First Love isn't just a paradigm shit, it's also a good album. First and foremost it is a good album. Hikaru's approach to songwriting, singing and making songs is so pure and captivating in the strangest of ways. She is a 15 year old girl singing songs about love in ways which are not only indicative of how a 15 year old would see love, but how somebody twice that age would see it too. Love will excite you, piss you off, make you feel on top of the world and have you absolute detest it at any age. These feelings are the same no matter which period in your life you experience it - and this is part of what draws you into the songs and has you forget for a minute that a 15 year old girl wrote them.

This is First Love in a nutshell. There is no gimmick. It's just an album of earnest songs from an artist who loves music and telling stories.

Album Review: Hikaru Utada - First Love | Random J Pop

Hikaru being Japanese and having a best selling Enka singer as a mother, but growing up in the US and writing her own songs makes for a unique sound - blending the sounds of US radio, with the melodic sensibilities of J-Pop, with the unique storytelling befitting of a lot of Japanese music in the 80s and 90s. First Love is essentially a US Pop album of the 2000s in Japanese, which is probably a large part of what made it resonate with fans overseas, even though they didn't understand what Hikaru was saying aside from the song titles in the choruses.

The title of the album fits the theme, as every song on this album is about love in some form and first encounters with it. The two most popular and beloved songs on the album ("Automatic" and "First Love") pretty much set the tone for the entire thing.

"Automatic" is one of the best songs on this album, and a standout in Hikaru Utada's discography. Perfect isn't a word I throw around often, but "Automatic" truly is perfection. Off-kay ad-lib and all. There is an immediate sense of familiarity to it when you hear it for the first time. And every time you hear it after, you just fall in love with it all over again. "First Love" is the song that scalped the Japanese population, but is my least favourite song on the album. Still, even I can say that it's a nicely produced song with really touching lyrics which manage to tow the line between joy and sadness; the duality of which would become a theme of Hikaru Utada on future songs. The commonality with both "Automatic" and "First Love" is that Hikaru Utada knows how to write good pop songs. And if you figured 'Well this is just two songs'. Bitch. Hikaru keeps this energy throughout the entire fucking album. Catchy melodies. Choruses that stick like a drag queens' wig cap. Memorable lyrics. She never drops the ball.

Even at the age of 15 Hikaru had a skill for writing love songs from perspectives which weren't always common. Songs such as "B&C", "Paint It Black" and "Give Me a Reason" felt so heavy for love songs from somebody so young. But it never feels strange or alienating, because there are reminders that Hikaru is (was) a young girl. There's the House influenced "Movin' On Without You", a kiss off song about leaving some asshole that doesn't appreciate you - a song that every female pop star has in her repertoire early on her career. And songs like "In My Room", which as the title implies is about thinking about your boo whilst you swan around in your room - which features a great set of lyrics of how she's sat with contact lenses, fake nails and hair extensions to will the attention of somebody she desires. It's truly aged beautifully, because girls still be doing that shit.

First Love strikes a great balance between hitting you with really great songs where Hikaru's age is a non-factor, then reminding you that she is in fact a 15 year old girl - in similar ways to JoJo's debut album. The reminders that Hikaru is 15 don't feel calculated. It's a by-product of her...being 15 when she wrote these songs. But nothing about any of these songs feels forced or disingenuous.

You go from forgetting this is an album by a girl who was only 15 years old when it was recorded, to being reminded that she is only 15, to then realising what it was like to be 15. That adolescent period is such a weird time. Its when you started to feel torn between approaching adulthood, but still being a kid. Having very real feelings and experiencing very real emotions, but not having them taken seriously because 'You're just a kid'. First Love represents all of these things. It's not so strange to listen to a song like "First Love" or "Movin' On Without You" when you remember what it was like to be 15 years old. And in my ways, even as adults, many of us still have moments when we vividly remember what it's like to be that age. Sometimes we even find ourselves reverting back to that age during times when our confidence eludes us or we experience traumas. This matched with the sound of this album gives it a universal appeal which sits outside of trends and timelines. It just...is.

Album Review: Hikaru Utada - First Love | Random J Pop

The production on First Love is as earnest as the lyrics. There's a warmth to all of these songs and a sense of familiarity about each one. The production on this album is also something which created shifts in music in J-Pop with things like sampling - another instance of Hikaru's US up-bringing influencing the music. Rarely in J-Pop were songs sampled. It was usually a case of a Japanese artist covering a UK or European song, re-writing the lyrics in Japanese and making the production a little more J-Pop centric (i.e Namie Amuro's "Taiyou no Season"). Transforming the song to such a point that nobody even knows it's a cover. And the R&B and House undertones in songs on First Love would play a part in the R&B wave that hitthe Japanese music scene in the early 2000s, something that Hikaru Utada would further legitimise with her follow up album Distance, which saw her work with big Pop / R&B producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Rodney Jerkins, when others were having to tap Japanese producers to rip off their sound because they ain't got Teruzane managing their shit.

The only weak point of this album for me is Hikaru Utada's vocals. Hikaru has a nice voice, but she does not have the best voice. Distance, Deep River, Exodus, Ultra Blue - all have songs where Hikaru Utada's vocals sound bad. Flat notes. Wrong notes. She be running around songs trying to find the right key like Link in a Zelda dungeon. It took me a while to settle into First Love because of how bad she sounds on certain songs. The last minute of "First Love" is a mess and can't nobody tell me otherwise. But, the album has such a wide margin for charm, and the songs are so good that you just roll with it.

Album Review: Hikaru Utada - First Love | Random J Pop

First Love in and of itself a solid album. But when sat alongside Hikaru Utada's pre-debut album Precious, also shows the differences in Hikaru Utada's approach to songwriting and the refinements she made to her craft and artistry, even within a short space of time. Precious has some nice songs. "How ya doin'" would've fit nicely here, as would a couple of others. But there was nothing on Precious that really hit the way songs from First Love did. Where-as Precious felt like a fun after school project, First Love felt like the album where Hikaru knew she wanted hits and to set the groundwork to keep making music.

There is no getting away from how good the songs on this album are. Even when Hikaru is sounding rough around the edges, there is no denying the quality of the music production and the lyricism on display. And what makes this album so special from the perspective of a fan looking back on it, is that even at this early age in the music business, Hikaru had a sense of who she was. Even if she would lose that at some point down the line, she was very sure of who she was as a singer and songwriter at this point in time - which is something so many other artists starting out struggle to find. Then again, Hikaru Utada isn't like other artists. 

VERDICT: IT'S AUTOMATIC

Highlights
■ Automatic 🏆 J's fave
■ Movin' On Without You
■ In My Room
■ Time Will Tell
■ Another Chance
■ Give Me A Reason

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