MANILA – At the tender age of 16, Utada Hikaru released “First Love,” a song about heartbreak that still brings tears to many people’s eyes to this day.
“First Love” is also the title track of her debut album which remains Japan’s top-selling album of all time, a feat that today’s J-pop acts can only dream about.
Nearly 20 years have passed, and Utada, now a single mother after emerging from her second divorce, comes full circle. Her seventh Japanese studio album (and 10th overall) is titled “Hatsukoi” which, when translated to English, means “first love.”
But unlike the R&B-influenced 1999 album, “Hatsukoi” captures Utada’s purest essence, a result of years of experimentation with different genres (from ethereal wave and electronica to jazz and even rock).
It carries over the new-found confidence and sophistication of her comeback album “Fantome” (2016), putting Utada’s voice front and center, but it does away with the lingering heaviness.
Here, she is more self-assured as she closes certain chapters in her life (from the tragic death of her mother to another failed marriage) and begins new ones (raising her son as a single woman in London).
It’s as if Utada has finally found her sweet spot when it comes to her music, and she is marking this milestone by releasing this album.
It is interesting to note that eight of the 12 tracks in “Hatsukoi” are tie-ins: “Play A Love Song” and “Oozora de Dakishimete” are featured in ads for the Japanese beverage brand Suntory, which Utada endorses; “Anata” is for the movie “Destiny Kamakura Monogatari” and is also used in a commercial for Sony earphones; “Hatsukoi” is for the series “Hana Nochi Nare – Hanadan Next Season”; “Chikai” is for the video game “Kingdom Hearts 3”; “Forevermore” is for the TV drama “Gomen, Aishiteru”; “Good Night” is for the anime film “Penguin Highway”; and “Pakuchii No Uta” is a collaboration with Buzzfeed’s Tasty Japan.
Despite this, none of the songs feel like they’re made-to-order. Each track is polished yet still raw, rich with emotion and brimming with warmth.
In “Anata” (You), for instance, Utada sings about someone so important, not even the fires of hell can stop her from protecting that person.
It’s easy to assume that the subject is her then-husband, because “anata” is a Japanese word normally used by married women as a term of endearment.
But following the news of her divorce, it would seem that the song is Utada’s way of professing her love for her child, whom she now raises single-handedly.
“The world I walk with you is breathtakingly beautiful. Even in the middle of the desolate wilds, the one who squeezed my hand back was you,” she sings in Japanese.
This notion of strong, pure love can also be felt in the title track “Hatsukoi,” where Utada reimagines “First Love” after years of relationship experience.
“All people fall in love, that’s what I always thought. And yet if I had never met you, I do not think that anyone else would have led me to one day have these feelings,” she sings in Japanese, with the piano and strings heard prominently in the background.
“If I had never met you, I think I’d probably be still living my life without knowing why I had been born.”
The momentum continues with the jazz-infused track “Forevermore,” where Utada sings of love that extends beyond this life: “I’m not afraid of how I may end. For even if, perhaps I’m somehow reborn, I still will not forget.”
But perhaps the most powerful song in the album is “Chikai” (Oath), Utada’s third contribution to the “Kingdom Hearts” video game series. Here, she took a big creative risk as she sang to an intriguingly offbeat arrangement, sometimes forcing too many words in one line.
“Chikai” initially drew mixed reactions during previews, but the full version unfolded gorgeously, with many fans declaring that it is easily the best track in the album.
“This is a perfect day for our oaths. I do not need pretty flowers or witnesses, let’s just wear rings of the same color,” she sings in Japanese.
Utada has been known to not only write all of her music, but also record every vocal in her songs. But in “Play A Love Song,” a choir can be heard toward the end, adding warmth to an upbeat track with sad lyrics.
Tired of all the bickering, Utada pleads in Japanese: “Let’s just try to calm down for a minute, it’s not like none of it really matters… So please, let’s just eat, and laugh, and go to bed. Can we play a love song?”
The second half of the album highlights Utada’s dorky side and fixation on mortality. In “Too Proud,” which features up and coming Brazilian-British rapper Jevon, Utada sings about being in a stagnant relationship against the backdrop of video game-like blips.
“What if we pretend that one of us will die tomorrow? Or that we’re strangers? Will that change things?” she casually murmurs throughout the bouncy track.
“Good Night” soars as a soft rock song with Utada effortlessly switching from low to high notes, while “Pakuchii No Uta” (Coriander Song) is her second attempt at writing a children’s song. The first was “Boku Wa Kuma” (I am a Bear), which is about her homosexual stuffed teddy bear.
In the downtempo-tinged “Pakuchii No Uta,” Utada describes the herb as “gentle, green, and a terrible liar,” and even talks about making curry with coriander to celebrate the sun’s birthday.
The rest of the tracks show Utada longing for something: a final moment together in “Oozora de Dakishimete” (Hold Me in the Vast Sky), a familiar touch in “Nokoriga” (Lingering Scent), a peaceful sending of souls in “Yuunagi” (Evening Calm), and a supreme kind of love in “Shittosareubeki Jinsei” (A Life to Be Envied).
“Just kiss me without saying it’s our last. Perhaps we can only meet again in our dreams,” she sings in Japanese in “Oozora de Dakishimete,” another example of a happy tune with heart-wrenching lyrics.
“The waves roll back, then fade to nothing,” Utada narrates in “Yuunagi,” which features a slow “seiya” festival chant in the end to depict the scene of sending a soul into the sea.
The last track, “Shittosarerubeki Jinsei,” shows Utada talking about coming to terms with her mother’s demise, and eventually her own.
“I’m going to stop devoting my life to the satisfaction of others. While changing the flowers for my mother’s burial portrait, I’m thinking: ‘If you’re the first to go, I’ll still remain faithful to you. But if I die first, I’ll smile in my final moments,’” she sings in Japanese, as if reminding herself to make the most out of every moment.
Overall, “Hatsukoi” beautifully encapsulates Utada’s artistry, reflecting a specific moment in her life – as a mother and a daughter who strives to move forward.
With her music full of optimism and her voice better than ever, Utada has yet to lose her touch. 10/10
(Residents in the Philippines can get a copy of “Hatsukoi” via iTunes or through Amazon Japan.)