Running to stand still

It’s official — Utada Hikaru is now trapped by her own success.

On her last album, Distance, the young Japanese singer recorded an album that wouldn’t disappoint her legions of fans, while showing she had the potential to transcend her success.

Fifteen months later — normal for Japan’s music scene, but somewhat a rush in the U.S. — Utada returns with Deep River. The modus operandi which drove Distance also sets the tone for this album as well.

Deep River contains mostly slick, lush-ly produced R&B pop, mature in its sound, rich in execution. It’s the style that’s kept Utada on the top of the Oricon charts for the past three years.

At the same time, she provides just enough stylistic flourishes to keep hyper-critical listeners at bay — a buzzing guitar here, an international rhythm there.

Before, those kinds of flourishes could be construed as possible directions Utada could take her obvious talent. Now, on an album that doesn’t show much progression from what came before, those flourishes aren’t anything but.

In other words, Utada is repeating herself.

That’s not to say Deep River is an awful listening experience. Quite the contrary. Utada on a bad day is still light years better than Britney Spears smack dab in the middle of her 15 minutes.

On “Hikari”, Utada’s earnest croon feels heart-felt without being too forced. “Final Distance” is a beautiful re-working of the title track from her last album.

“travelling” might be a bit too akin to early-90s Madonna — you can practically sing the chorus of “Erotica” over the opening hook, and the word “travelling” was used as a refrain in the Björk-written “Bedtime Story” — but it’s a fun song appropriate for a packed dance floor.

But the level of calculation that felt organic on previous albums seems a bit more apparent on Deep River.

The Latin Explosion of 1999 didn’t escape Hikki, as “Letters” hints at Carribean rhythms. The Timbaland influences aren’t hard to mistake on “Tokyo Nights”.

“Uso Mitai na I Love You” even indulges in a bit of nu metal riffage. Rather than go fully rock, as she did on “Drama”, Utada combines dance beats with buzzing power chords. It’s the most imaginative track on the disc, albeit a combination of the two most prominent music genres of the past five years. How’s that for “target marketing”?

Deep River is a well performed, well written album. Then again, so was Distance. Both albums seem to hint Utada could really bring pop music some significant artistry.

But by once again appealing to her fanatical devotees, Hikki limits herself to a template that doesn’t say nearly as much as it could.