Going the Distance

Utada Hikaru may come across as Japan’s post-teen version of Des’ree, but who she really wants to be is Sting.

With her meticulously crafted second album, Distance, Utada offers more of the same mature R&B pop that made First Love an worthy hit. But on a few tracks, “Hikki” strays just far enough from her tried-and-true formula to hint at the young star’s more ambitious aims.

For the most part, Utada doesn’t do anything too extreme to shock her fiercely loyal fan base. All the hit singles she’s released since First Love are all here and accounted for: “Wait and See ~RISK”, “For You”, “Time Limit”, “Can You Keep a Secret?”, “Addicted to You”.

A few of the remaining tracks — “Distance”, “Sunglass”, “Kotobani Naranai Kimochi” (“Indescribable Feelings”) — are by-the-numbers R&B tracks keeping with the album’s overall feel.

But then Utada indulges her more rock ‘n’ roll leanings at strategic points in the album.

The appropriately-titled “Parody” mirrors Sting’s “Englishman from New York” in structure, right down to the reggage beat on plucked strings and hip-hop outburst toward the end of the song. (“Never Let Go” from First Love went so far as to sample Sting’s “The Shape of My Heart.”)

On “Kettobasse!” (“Kick Them Away!”), Utada draws upon an early 80s new wave sound, while “Drama” imagines what Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” would sound like filtered through Nirvana and Oblivion Dust.

By stepping out of the mold she cast for herself two years ago with First Love, Utada tells the world she’s capable of far more than crowd-pleasing, teen-friendly pop music. Indeed, she’s confessed her first love was rock ‘n’ roll before she discovered Whitney Houston.

But Utada is also a smart performer. Her husky alto doesn’t have the emotional resonance of UA or head-crushing force of Cocco. But it does suite the hooks Utada fashions for herself.

If anything, Distance is a songwriter’s showcase. The album is every bit as polished and crafted as its predecessor, even doing First Love one better by including a sliver more diversity.

Case in point: “Addicted to You.” The “Underwater Mix” released last year as a single is a far better version than the Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis-produced “Up-in-Heaven Mix”, but in context of the album, the “Up-in-Heaven Mix” fits perfectly.

Utada and her army of producers know exactly what it takes to make this young woman’s talent appear as remarkable as it is.