Album review: Hikaru Utada - Fantôme

Album review: Hikaru Utada - Fantôme | Random J Pop

From Deep river onward, the subject matter of Hikaru Utada's songs became more than simple love songs. They were conversations. Questions. A yearning to understand. Her songs always raised questions, because we were always unsure of what was happening in Hikaru Utada's life. She wasn't always frank in these songs and often much was left to interpretation. In retrospect of her splitting from her first husband Kazuya Kiriya, many of these songs now make a lot more sense. But at the time of their releases, we were never sure. Hikaru was that awkward girl / woman in pop who never really fit in, and her songs had the same air about them. Yet they continued to top charts and break records.

But Fantôme is the first album of Hikaru's where we know what state of mind she was in going into it and exactly what she was feeling. The veil, lifted for the very first time. Hikaru, baring her soul for the world to see. She does not want anything here to be misconstrued. She is missing her mother dearly. She is staring her own mortality in the face in the wake of now being a mother. She is still trying to understand what it means to love somebody under circumstances which are normal and far from such.

This time, it's personal.

Despite the overly sombre tone of my description of the album, Fantôme is a much more upbeat affair than you'd expect. It is not an album about doom and gloom, but finding hope in darkness. Finding resolve in the fact that it is okay to not be 100% okay.

Fantôme marks many firsts for Hikaru. The album features 3 guest features. Sheena Ringo makes an appearance, making the collabo that I've wanted for the longest time and I couldn't be happier with the result. The short and almost fleeting feeling of the song ties in with the subject matter perfectly. Sheena and Hikaru have completely different singing styles, but the middle ground of this song suits them both perfectly. They also look great together in the quasi space-lesbian video.

Hikaru takes up the podium as queen of the gays with her LGBT bop "Tomodachi", which features vocalist Nariaki Obukuro. As with "Michi" the music itself contrasts the lyrics. The music sells a flawless seduction, but the song is about an unrequited love of a gay who is thirsty for their straight friend and knows their feelings will never be reciprocated. Alternative titles for this song could be "The bussy ain't mine", "Wanna ride it (But I can't)", "Get this gay ass together" and "Curved". "Tomodachi" is like a flamenco tinged equivalent of Robyn's "Dancing on my own". The vibes will have you slow grinding in some dark corner alone. Pressed and upset. Nariaki Obukuro's feature is as a backing vocalist, but this does not damper or lessen his presence on the song by any means. His vocal contributions make this song and his voice melds perfectly with Hikaru's when it needs to and peeks out from it at all the right moments. And let's be real. If Hikaru Utada called you and said, 'Can you do backing vocals on my song' you are not going to cop an attitude. Your ass is gonna fucking do it because you know you're making history by being graced with an opportunity to work with royalty. The song itself is just top to bottom hotness. I wish it had been made a single. The production is perfection. The guitar, the horns, the percussion. The song is everything. My only one gripe is that I wish it had a middle-8, as the song feels as though at ends before it should. The melody at the end of the song should have actually been used for the middle-8 itself.

"Boukyaku" is the perfect embodiment of the album theme, subject matter, title and cover. It's a beautiful song. The song also features a first within a series of firsts, as it's Hikaru Utada's first collaboration with a rapper, KOHH. The song goes on for an entire minute and a half until you hear any vocals. And even you eventually do, the vocals are not even Hikaru's. They are KOHH's. Hikaru doesn't actually deliver a verse until two and a half minutes into the song. Then it's straight back to KOHH. The first time I heard this song, I was in love with the production, because the vibes are so crazy. It's like a fusion of Ultra Blue and Exodus. Hikaru's backing vocals come and go, playing in reverse. The kicks are a heartbeat. The synths swirl like a slow unravelling of energy. It's beautifully put together. Initially I was uncertain of KOHH who felt like a Japanese knock-off of Drake or Future. But the more I listened to the song, the more I 'got it'. And now I couldn't imagine the song without him.

This album is so grounded and tangible in its subject matter, yet something about it feels out of reach. Like Hikaru herself exists somewhere else, which in turn highlights the album theme completely. Hikaru is so close, but so distant at the same time. This also speaks for where she sits within the music industry and amongst her peers. From Ultra blue onwards, Hikaru Utada was on a different path to her peers anyway, but she's literally out on her own now. Ayu gon' have to chase a dream, 'cos she ain't catching Hikaru now.

Fantôme is one of Hikaru's most divisive albums. This is not going to be every fans' cup of tea. The stripped back approach to the music may put those off who liked the vivacity of the songs which featured on the likes of Deep river and Ultra blue. Some may also miss Hikaru singing in her upper register, as she barely goes up into it on this album - a stark contrast to a fan fave like Ultra blue where almost every song had her singing in higher keys. And yet, Fantôme is somehow still an embodiment of what makes Hikaru so special as an artist, because she approached this album the way she always has - by doing it her way.

Everything about Fantôme exists in a dual form. The subject matter of many of the songs are completely personal to her, but you can connect with them because they're steeped in so much human emotion. The sound of the album isn't the most accessible of Hikaru Utada's albums, and yet there's a high likelihood that she will garner a whole new fan base with it because of the songs. Just as the subject of the many of the songs is about accepting the past and looking forward, the same is said for the music; none of which is built on the legacy of her previous albums.

There are no 2 songs on this album which sound alike. This isn't a shock, as Hikaru never pulls the same trick twice with any album. The song structures on Fantôme aren't always conventional. As is common with J-Pop songs, choruses may have the same rhythmic patterns and melodies, but feature variations in the lyrics. But here, songs do not always follow the verse chorus, verse, bridge structure. Songs such as "Ore no kanojo" and "Boukyaku" throw this clean out of the window. Some songs are sun almost in a recital form, with no obvious song structure (i.e "Ningyo", "Manatsu no tooriame", "Kouya no ookami").

The songs on Fantôme are not as upbeat and as in-your-face as songs on Distance, Deep river and Ultra blue were, which is something you'll either love or you'll hate. Me personally, I like the approach. There is no song which goes right into the thick of things as "Uso mitai na I love you" or "This is the love" did. Fantôme is full of slow burners. Songs feel as though they are evolving and growing as they progress. Starting off when one particular set of instrumentation and arrangements, which build and blossom over the course of the song. "Kouya no ookami" goes from Super Mario 3D World to Soul Edge like it ain't shit. "Ningyo" starts off with nothing but a harp and then ends with a set of drums which knock harder than those on "Michi". "Ore wa kanojo" starts off on some minimal detective, Carmen Sandiego shit with nothing but a double bass and a piano, but slowly flourishes with a string section, electric guitars and drums. The production on this album is minimal, but it's nuanced. It's one of Hikaru's most polished albums production wise. The only song which is the exception is "Michi" which sounds like something a first timer threw together in FL studio. The production is so weak and it threw me right back to Exodus, where some of the songs felt like they were raggedly slapped together. There is no richness in the production at all, which leaves it at odds with every other song on the album which feels so well rounded production-wise and musically.

Hikaru Utada's vocals are on top form here. There have been many instances on past albums where her vocals have been shrill, off key and sometimes abrasive. But she now sports a tone and texture to her voice that she never had before. It seems that over the course of her discovering herself through the loss of her mother and becoming a mother herself that she's re-discovered her voice and how to best utilise it. Hikaru sings in much lower registers on this album and is much more controlled. She sounds great. To the point where I'd actually wished she'd recorded "Sakura nagashi" again with this newfound texture and control of hers. And to an even further extent, I'd love for her to do an unplugged album of her older material.

Every song on Fantôme paints a vivid story. Despite Fantôme  having an overarching theme and parallel narratives (one of which is how to live life with loss, the other being dealing with the love of a significant other) - even when you pick the songs out on their own, they hold. It's long been a theme that artists in Japan shoot visuals for every song on their album, something which has transitioned into the West with the likes of Beyonce's B'Day, her self titled album, Lemonade and also Frank Ocean's Endless. But Fantôme  is one album I would have loved to have seen a visual appended to for every song. The mood Hikaru sets with some of this music is amazing.

The only thing that interrupts the mood is the tracklisting. Hikaru has stated that the track ordering is not completely random, and that the odd track numbers are the songs about her mother and the even numbers are those of which are about love and relationships. But even so, the track ordering is odd, as certain songs which should obviously be sequenced in a certain order, aren't. "Tomodachi" being sandwiched between "Ningyo" and "Manastu no tooriame" is strange. "Hanataba wo kimi ni" being plonked right after "Ore no kanojo" is bizarre.

It's difficult to place Fantôme within Hikaru's overall discography, because the overall vibe of the album is so different to her other works. But this is a solid album. There's as much here for fans to love as there is for them hate. I wouldn't even dismiss Fantôme as a starting point for those who are new to Hikaru Utada because of the strength of certain songs on this album and because vocally, this is where she sounds her best.

Fantôme is not this big fanfare of an album musically and it's a gentle beast of an album. Heck. It's not a beast at all. But it's no less of an album album because of it, and I for one appreciate not having a duplication of what Hikaru had done before. And given the direction that Hikaru Utada went into with Heart station, personal tragedies and life changing joy aside, Hikaru was always going to land at doing an album of sorts such as this.

Fantome left me wholly satisfied. But more than anything it left me itching to know where Hikaru Utada is going to go from here.

RATING: 8 / 10

Album highlights:
■ Ore no kanojo
■ Hanataba wo kimi ni
■ Nijikan dake no vacance
■ Ningyo
■ Tomodachi ★ J's fave
■ Manatsu no tooriame
■ Boukyaku

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