Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki - miss(understood)

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - miss(understood) | Random J Pop

The way I see it, (Miss)understood is the origin story of Ayumi Hamasaki’s musical identity crisis and was the beginning of her making wrong choices. It is also the album where I feel that Ayu’s branding for her albums and the musical content started to diverge. It’s not a requirement that every album has to be branded in a way in which it coincides with the music. But for an artist like Ayu who had always put so much focus into visuals and creating a moment with them for each album, it felt weird to have an album with a cover which felt so playful and cute, just for the album to not follow through on that sound aside from the opening song “Bold & Delicious”. And this leads into what I feel is a large part of Miss(understood)’s weakness. It seems uncertain of what it wants to be, even though it knows what type of album it should be.

(Miss)understood is notable for featuring the work of German pop project Sweetbox, and the production of one of its members, Roberto "Geo" Rosan; marking one of Ayu’s first albums where material wasn’t produced exclusively for her. Word has it that she’d heard a bunch of Sweetbox’s songs, liked them, asked if she could have them, and Geo was kind enough to oblige. So what we end up with is an album which flirts a little with one sound, interwoven with material from Ayu’s regular roster of composers and producers (Tasuku, HΛL, CMJK and Dai Nagao of Do As Infinity). Some of the Sweetbox songs have clearly been reworked to try and retrofit them into the overarching sound of (Miss)understood, but it doesn’t always work, and creates this strange dichotomy; resulting in songs which were one thing, trying to be pulled into another thing, with an result sounding like it’s neither here nor there.

This approach to the Sweetbox material really highlights Ayu and Avex’s reluctance to change, because a far better idea would have been for Ayu to have just worked with Sweetbox outright and had Geo craft a whole album for her. The Sweetbox productions feature intriguing ideas and new directions that Ayu could have gone in which would have worked for her. It’s baffling that she chose not to do so here, because it’s not like all of Sweetbox’s productions are outside of the box and scope of what Ayu had done before and had done well. The aristocratic string arrangements of “In the Corner” are akin to Rainbow’s “We Wish” and “Real Me”. “Beautiful Day” shares the same bright rock optimism of My Story’s “Winding Road”. “Rainy Day” is an Ayu ballad in a different gear, with a focus on the beats and not the drama and the sweeping strings, a la “Love ~Refrain~” from LOVEppears. And these are all things that Ayu would revisit on albums which would follow years down the line, such as Next Level and Rock ‘N’ Roll Circus, and end up being highlights of both. Even the song “Ladies Night” would end up being revisited for Party Queen.

Whilst I feel that the non Sweetbox songs are the strongest of the songs, I also feel that at this point in Ayu’s career, the Sweetbox songs were more of the type of material that Ayu needed. And the full potential of the Sweetbox songs could have been better realised if Ayu had realised them WITH Sweetbox, as opposed to taking the songs to her go-to’s to try and re-work them. Sweetbox brought something a little new to the table for Ayu at a point in her career where she became musically predictable. But as became an obstacle in the years that would follow (which is still an obstacle to this very day), there was a reluctance to fully embrace the new, without the fall-back of the material her fans knew her for primarily. So (Miss)understood ends up sounding like an album that wanted to be a soft reboot for Ayu, but wasn’t brave enough to embrace it fully - which would lead to Ayu approaching future albums in the same exact way and ruining them because of it.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - miss(understood) | Random J Pop

One thing I will say about the non Sweetbox material though is that it shows how settled Ayu is within her own sound. She truly commands it on this album on songs such as “Step You”, which is a fucking great song. But there is also a complacency. Ayu played it too safe because she knew that she could. By 2006, and after 6 number 1 albums, you couldn’t tell Ayu shit. Ayu put in too much work for her success and to have the power and sway that she had at Avex to rock the boat with an album which felt different. And Avex were not going to sign off on an album which messed with the formula they felt was responsible for Ayu’s streak of Oricon number 1’s.

Given (Miss)understood’s theme of female empowerment and finding the strength to do all the things, I feel that this would have been an ideal album for Ayu to rewrite her own rules and turn her sound on its head more. Had she done so at this point in her career, then she wouldn’t have found herself playing catch up and feeling lost in a music scene which has evolved around her. By 2006 Ayu's peers had already transformed their sounds into something beyond what it was originally known for. Hikaru Utada's went synth pop and seemed to have closed the door on R&B in 2006 with her album Ultra Blue and was still fucking up the charts. Namie Amuro was about to ride the second wind of her career with her album Play, which saw Namie successfully come out the other side of a reinvention with a whole new sound and image; marking the beginning of Ayu no longer being the number 1 selling bitch at Avex. And Kumi Koda's career was already in the fullest of swings by this point and had established herself as a musical chameleon who could do any sound and catch a hit with it.

It’s a shame that despite the message of empowerment she was trying to give others, that she didn’t have more belief in herself that she could do something a bit different, and still have it work and STILL have it feel like it's hers. Especially when there were examples of other women who had successfully done so.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - miss(understood) | Random J Pop

Ayu has never been much of a vocalist, but one thing she’s always given is energy. Even on songs where Ayu doesn’t sound particularly great (i.e screaming on the back of a truck in the streets of New York on “Bold & Delicious”). She’s still giving great energy. issue with Ayu’s vocals here is that too frequently they get lost in the mixes of the songs. On a song with a rousing hook like “Alterna”, sometimes it’s like the volume on Ayu’s vocals just drop out. Even during softer moments of songs such as “Criminal” and “Heaven”, you can barely hear a bitch. The lack of vocal production and attention paid to the mixing on some of these songs sell Ayu really short on a bunch of songs which already suffer from a lack of strong melodies and good choruses. Yeah, we gon’ get to that.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - miss(understood) | Random J Pop

Whilst Miss(understood) is a consistent album and flows well, the middle of the album becomes a bit of a haze and the album kinda just cruises until the end. Songs become a little indistinguishable from one another, because they all share the same sound and don’t feature hooks with strong enough melodies. Things pick up with “Alterna”, which actually does have a solid hook and piques attention by virtue of it being obnoxiously loud. But that’s about it.

These songs aren’t bad, they just feel middling and don’t feel as impactful as Ayu and the producers seem to think they are. Ayu, Kazuhiro Hara, Dai Nagao, HΛL and CMJK all seem to forget here that no matter how dense a song is with sounds and EQ’s pushed through the roof; a song still needs to have a good structure, a solid melody and a fucking great chorus. If a song doesn’t have a strong enough melody or a good enough chorus, then you just have to return to the drawing board to give the damn song a stronger melody and a better chorus.

Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) - miss(understood) | Random J Pop

Miss(understood) is by no means a bad album. There’s no one song I can think of which feels egregiously bad. But it’s such a bland album as a whole. Even the albums in Ayu’s discography which I don’t think highly of still have one or two genuinely good songs and standout moments. The only moment on this album that truly sticks out and defines it is “Bold & Delicious”, which is down to it sounding so different to every other song on the album and anything that Ayu had ever done prior. Retrospectively, Miss(understood) was the moment where Ayu really needed to venture out and truly explore the fringes of her sound and what lay beyond it. And by not doing so, she made an album that’s kinda whatever and doesn’t make the statement she intended or thought it did.

Verdict: miss(understood) the assignment

■ Step you 🏆
■ Is this Love?
■ (miss)understood
■ Alterna 🔥
■ Will
■ Heaven