Album Review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Secret

The post header, featuring the cover for Ayumi Hamasaki’s 8th studio album, Secret

2006, for me, is the year where Ayumi Hamasaki started to do something that would contribute to her downfall. The formula for the Ayu sound was pretty set. Maybe a little too set. But there was also this thing which was occurring, where Ayu was attempting to fold current music trends into her own sound. A pretty normal thing to do. Every artist does it to some degree. But Ayu very rarely stuck the landing, and to this day, it’s something that Ayu struggles with and is inconsistent with. We also started to see this occur with her image too; adopting looks and vibes from popular US pop stars and music videos, which seemed so disparate from who she was up until that point. Case in point, “Startin’”, which seemed to wanna be a Britney music video REAL bad.

Artists try different shit all of the time, and they don’t always get it right. Some things stick. Some things don’t. But in Ayu’s case, it came off as more of a mess, because we’d hear and see her attempt all of these different things, and then release an album with an album cover, title and creative direction which was not consistent with anything that lead up to it. And this is something that really ended up hurting her 2006 album, Secret. It hurt her prior album (Miss)understood too. But it hurt Secret far more.

When listening to Secret I couldn’t help but feel that the album sounded like three concepts smashed into one. Nothing about Secret felt like a whole, top to bottom body of work, but rather a collection of songs which could each be grouped into three acts, suites or completely different EP’s. Then I later discovered that Secret was originally supposed to be an EP, and it all made sense. Because there is absolutely a solid EP or two in Secret. But it being unnecessarily turned into an LP completely dilutes what could have been a really tight release.

What Secret also falls folly to is what was Ayu and Avex’s work and release pattern when it came to albums. Ayu was notoriously known for the frequency at which she would release albums. Secret was Ayu’s second album to be released in 2006, only 11 months after (Miss)understood. One of my biggest gripes with (Miss)understood was that it had this very clear split, something which has carried through to Secret. And there are songs on Secret that I feel would have worked well on Miss(understood) and visa-vera. So, had Ayu not put out two separate albums in a year, then we may have gotten one whole album, and not two fractured ones.

A shot from the inlay of Ayumi Hamasaki’s album, Secret. Featuring a shot of Ayumi Hamasaki showing her back and her tattoo, whilst wearing a diamante top
Ayumi Hamasaki | Secret

There are three core sounds and vibes that make up Secret, and they were pretty standard for Ayu up to Secret and far beyond it. Angsty uptempo rock numbers, feel good dance cuts and ballads. Secret does all three well, but they don’t hold together because of the differences in tone between each of the styles and then the songs individually. I’m not saying that an album has to have 10+ songs which all sound similar in order for it to work. But there needs to be some form of tone and vibe consistency across every song, or something which musically ties them all together in order for them to sound like they belong together on an album. The instrumental interludes on Secret, despite being well produced, only reiterate this sense of Secret feeling like three concepts put together, because they effectively break these concepts up and split the album into what feels like disconnected acts. We pretty much get the rock songs in the first third, most of the ballads in the second, and then mostly the feel good dance cuts in the third. The way the album opens and ends also throws any sense of cohesion or theme out of the window, as neither feel representative of the album, and both feel strangely placed.

A shot from the inlay of Ayumi Hamasaki’s album, Secret. Featuring a shot of Ayumi Hamasaki looking into the camera with her hands adorned in jewellery.
Ayumi Hamasaki | Secret

The rock numbers are a really mixed bag. Not just in terms of quality between them, but because they don’t really align with the feel good dance cuts or the ballads, because of how different the energies of these songs are.

The first full song on the album “Until That Day…” is just awful, and that’s all I have to say on that.

“Startin’” doesn’t do anything for Ayu, or the album itself, because the whole thing feels like a desperate attempt to be cool. Throwing record scratches on a rock track alone doesn’t make it cool. Producer and arranger Hara Kazuhiro and CMJK seem to have thought ‘Well, record scratches on a rock song is what made Run DMC and Aerosmiths “Walk This Way” cool’ with no understanding of what exactly it was that made that song cool, and why this particular fusion of Hip-Hop and Rock worked. With “Startin’”, there is no consideration or awareness of genre fusing, and it’s a common thing we started to hear in Ayu’s music from Secret onward. Just throwing the characteristic of one sound into another sound, and then calling it a day without trying to have them truly coalesce. But there is a good song at the heart of “Startin’”. If it were to be reworked, it could be something cool. But as it is, it’s just a throwaway song and a bit of a mess, which has no place on Secret in its current form.

I was listening to Secret whilst I was out on one of my long walks, and “1 Love” made me stop dead in my tracks, with a face like that meme of Lisa Simpson sat at the kitchen table. Ayumi Hamasaki sounds so good on this song, that I could not believe it. Superfly would have taken “1 Love” and sang Ayu under a shinkansen. But credit where it’s due; everything about the arrangement of this song, the production and the vibe puts Ayu in her element vocally in a way that I rarely hear from her. But as great as “1 Love” is, it shouldn’t be on Secret at all. No matter where you try to sit it on the album (and trust me, I’ve tried re-sequencing it) it just sounds out of place. “1 Love” is the type of song that would have worked far better on Miss(understood), or the album we could have gotten had Ayu not released Miss(understood) or Secret, and instead put out an album from the sessions of both.

“It Was” and “Kiss o’ Kill” are the only rock songs that fit the album, and that’s because they both feature the characteristics of ballads, with a similar air of melancholy that the likes of “Jewel” and “Momentum” have - both of which capture what I feel is the heart of Secret. “It Was” and “Kiss o’ Kill” are really good songs. Ayu’s voice grates on the hooks, as it often does. But otherwise, she turns in decent vocal performances for both. The only real downers for me are for “It Was”. First off, the mixing is iffy. Ayu’s vocals get smothered in the music. Even on the really sparse verses, Ayu’s vocals manage to get a bit lost. But they really get swallowed up during the chorus, when the big drums and guitars kick in. Ayu even sings the chorus like she’s fighting to be heard over the music. I also wish the drums on the verses were rock drums, instead of adopting quasi R&B style drums, as it just doesn’t sound right to me. But the latter doesn’t impact the song as much as the mixing does. And both things are probably things that nobody else will notice. I’m just a fussy and particular type of bitch.

A shot from the inlay of Ayumi Hamasaki’s album, Secret. Featuring Ayumi Hamasaki looking upwards, whilst wearing a backless black dress.
Ayumi Hamasaki | Secret

As started to become a pretty standard thing by the time Secret rolled around, the mid-tempos and the ballads are Ayu’s gambits. “Jewel” is the crown jewel of this album. It sounds like your pretty typical J-ballad to begin with - sparse, with nothing but Ayu and a piano. You expect that you will get the standard winter J-ballad flourishes; the sweeping strings and an acoustic guitar, but “Jewel” completely subverts this, by giving no such things. It’s just Ayu and a piano from start to finish, and it’s pretty stunning. The only downside is Ayu’s vocals. The lack of musical accompaniment really leaves Ayu vocally stranded, and it’s hard not to really pick her voice apart as a result. Ayu sounds frail. Her karate-chops-to-the-throat-whilst-holding-a-note-vibrato really grates. She sounds rough. But what saves her is that whilst she technically sounds pretty fucking bad, she sells the emotion of the song, which sometimes is the most important thing. It would have been equally bad if Ayu sounded technically great, but there was no feeling in how she sang the song. So I will give her that. All in all, “Jewel” is a beautiful song.

You’d think that the album title track would maybe be a standout on the album, or something special, but it isn’t. And I cannot believe Ayu chose to close the album out with it. That truly was a choice. Then again. Many choices were made on this album, so it’s par for the course. But “Secret” is a really nice song, which would have been better served if it were sequenced either side of “Labyrinth”. And “Labyrinth” was wasted on being an instrumental. It absolutely shoulda been written to and featured vocals.

“Momentum” is a funny old song, because I can’t quite decide where I fall on it. Part of me wishes the entire song was as it starts off; a slow, stirring, ballad. But then I also quite like how it just explodes during the choruses, with the song becoming this really cool balancing act of all of the things that I feel Ayu does best. The arrangement of “Momentum” lends itself to being flipped and performed live any number of ways to keep it interesting. So it’s a shame Ayu hasn’t done much with the song over the years. And it’s also a shame that it wasn’t released as a proper promotional single, as I think it would have done well.

Secret probably should have been a ballad heavy concept EP, because these are the songs that best convey the album title and the motif of the album imagery best. By 2006, Ayu had already released her ballads compilation A Ballads, which sold well and was very well received. So releasing an original studio EP of ballads wouldn’t have been a huge gamble, as there would have been an audience for it. Also, at this point in Ayu’s career, flopping wasn’t even a remote possibility for her. By my, how the mighty hath fallen since.

A shot from the inlay of Ayumi Hamasaki’s album, Secret. Featuring a close up of Ayumi Hamasaki jewel encrusted top.
Ayumi Hamasaki | Secret

The feel good pop songs are also highlights, and really apply the notes of how sometimes less is more. We don’t get Ayu trying to do anything outside of the box, anything extra, or producers trying to pander to a trend and throwing some shit into the mix just because. These are just straight up fist pumping, rousing pop songs, and they are all the better for their straightforward approaches. “Born To Be…” (aka “Waka Wakasaki (This Time for Africa)”) is just a great feel good song. It’s pretty much what the dated as hell “Bold & Delicious” should have been, and more of the types of songs that (Miss)understood needed. “Beautiful Fighters” is a bit of an outlier, in that it sounds like a song which was intended for somebody else. It’s a very anybody song. I would never say that it feels like a typical Ayu song, but this is partly what makes it work. It’s still in Ayu’s wheelhouse, with a empowering message you can always expect from her, but just different enough in sound that it makes you sit up a little. The auto-tuned vocals repeating the song title remind me a lot of Perfume. In fact, the whole song has a very Perfume JPN-esque vibe about it. And it’s also the kind of song which fuses cutesy pop, electro and rock that I’ve always kinda wanted Perfume to actually do. “Beautiful Fighters” is a cute jaunt, with big anime intro / credits vibes. It outstays its welcome clocking in at 5 minutes, but its so easy to get swept up in the brightness of the song, that you just roll with it. “Beautiful Fighters” would make for a great concert encore. “Blue Bird” shares a lot in common with “Beautiful Fighters”, but packaged in a style which is more quintessentially Ayu. It’s a really nice song. I wasn’t keen on it at first, but it’s really grown on me over time, and is one of Ayu’s better summer songs. But it does feature Ayu’s dreaded la la la’s. Whenever this woman can’t think of lyrics or ad-libs, she just la, la, la’s for a whole section of a song. It’s tired. There are so many things that Ayu could do to fill out space in a song vocally, and yet she just wails la, la, la’s every time.

A shot from the inlay of Ayumi Hamasaki’s album, Secret. Featuring a shot of Ayumi Hamasaki looking over her tattooed shoulder.
Ayumi Hamasaki | Secret

It really is a shame that Secret starts in the God awful way in which it does, with “Not Yet”, “Until That Day…” and “Startin’”, because it sets the complete wrong tone for the album and puts three of the worst songs on the album up front. Three songs that Secret would have been better off without. From track 4 onward, Secret is a nice selection of songs, but at no point does it feel like an album. And as much as I adore “1 Love”, Secret doesn’t truly start and reveal itself until “It Was”, five tracks into the album.

Stretching an EP into an album would have been fine, if the concept for the EP was kept for the additional songs - but it doesn’t appear to have been. As I’d mentioned at the top of the review, Secret feels like three EP concepts put together and then divided with interludes. And even if you approach Secret as an album divided into three acts, it still doesn’t work, because there’s nothing tying the songs together in any way, whether it be a narrative or a musical motif.

There is a very audible indecisiveness about what type of album Secret should be, which was a big issue with the album which came before it, (Miss)understood. I think part of the issue was that Ayu was perhaps feeling the push from what other artists were releasing. 2006 was part of a period in J-pop when we started to see more and more new artists emerge, injecting a freshness into the scene. And OG artists were starting to switch up their sounds. This was also the period when fellow Avex act Namie Amuro began to pave the way for her becoming the head bitch and dethrone Ayumi Hamasaki as the top seller at Avex. So it’s very possible that the three in one approach was a ploy to just try and please everybody, give some form of variety and get more money by retailing an LP instead of an EP. But the result is something which feels directionless. And it’s a real shame, because two thirds of the material on Secret is actually really good and shows that maybe there was a clear direction at some point in terms of what Secret should be.

Ayu isn’t reinventing any wheels or giving anything fresh. But for the most part she’s really nailing her sound and delivering some great songs. Had Ayu taken a bit more time and released one album in 2006, instead of two, and really nailed the songs that made the cut, we could have gotten one really solid album, instead two fractured ones.

Verdict: Of course I have a secret. I think…maybe you too.

▪ 1Love 🔥
▪ It Was 🔥
▪ Jewel 🏆
▪ Momentum 🔥
▪ Born to Be… 🔥
▪ Blue Bird
▪ Kiss o' Kill