Oh, man, I bet the fans hate this album.
Japanese artists attempting to crack the US market have all seemed to run under the assumption their latest work is the one that needs to be performed in English.
The assumption, of course, is the latest work is the most representative. But history is full of such assumptions — Pink Lady, Matsuda Seiko, Nakamori Akina, Dreams Come True — all of which failed.
Creativity, more often than not, follows a wave pattern with crests and troughs, rather than a trajectory. And when it comes to bad timing, these Japanese artists tried to break into the US during a creative trough.
It’s somewhat murky whether Utada Hikaru has followed the same pattern.
One thing is for certain on her English-language debut, Exodus — she and her producer dad have drastically remade her sound.
Exodus is buried under a lot of bizarre synthetic sounds, some complex beats and a really heavy-handed production. And Timbaland shows up on the two most straight-forward tracks on the album!
Exodus is also the most dissonant work Utada has every produced. If some of those synthetic sounds were transcribed to orchestral instruments, it would probably sound like a mistranslation of Bela Bartok or Igor Stravinsky.
“Hotel Lobby” is a case in point. A song about prostitution, the bass line forms a dark interval, and the hesitant beat never quite marks the start of a measure.
A sample of what sounds like wind through a congested tunnel threads itself through “Animato”, while a synthetic chorus spells out a chord progression that sounds almost classical. Maybe some of Shiina Ringo’s Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana has rubbed off on Utada?
Check out “About Me” — acoustic guitar accompanies Utada during the verses, but on the chorus, the pop beats come in, only to dissolve.
It’s heartening to see Utada really stretch, but some of those experiments fall a bit flat. That weird sound that punctuates “You Make Me Want to Be a Man” is annoying, and “Kremlin Dusk” seems to take forever before it really develops.
Her single-worthy material, however, is missing in action.
Nothing on Exodus matches “Wait and See ~Risk~” or “Hikari” in terms of hooks. “Devil Inside” comes pretty close, and “Tippy Toe” seems to have a bit of the Utada golden touch on it.
But the rest of the album isn’t her strongest writing, and as such, the heavy production feels like it’s attempting to mask those shortcomings.
Utada is poised for a breakthrough on the level of Absolute ego-era ACO or pre-Tokyo Jihen Shiina Ringo — just not with Exodus.