MANILA – Many Filipinos probably remember Utada Hikaru as the teen pop star behind “First Love,” often played in Japanese restaurants and cafes in Metro Manila.
Only a few, however, are aware that Utada has gone a long way since her debut in 1998. While the success of her “First Love” album could not be underestimated – it remains the best-selling Japanese album in modern history – she has since released one gem of a song after another, making her one of the most respected artists in her home country.
In her career spanning over a decade, Utada has always been in charge. She wrote all of her music and lyrics, standing out in a sea of Japanese idols or young stars admired solely for their cuteness. Midway through, she dabbled in arranging and producing songs, and directed her own music video.
Not showing any signs of slowing down, Utada surprised her fans in 2010 when she announced that she is going on an indefinite hiatus, saying she wanted to pursue “human activities.”
The next six years were a roller coaster ride for the Japanese superstar, with her mother’s tragic death in 2013, her second marriage in 2014, and the birth of her first child the following year. These gave her more than enough material for her comeback album "Fantôme," released in Japan (and other countries via iTunes) last September 28.
"Fantôme" is, first and foremost, Utada’s tribute to her late mother, enka singer Keiko Fuji. There is a lingering presence in the album, which is aptly named after the French word for “phantom.”
“It’s a lonely road / You are every song,” she sings in the opening track “Michi” (Road), her way of telling the world that she is doing okay despite her mother’s loss. The upbeat melody and the sad lyrics in “Michi” are an Utada signature, and can easily result in some teardrops on the dance floor.
While “Michi” fits the theme of Utada’s grieving process, its overall feel is reminiscent of her last Japanese album "Heart Station," which was released in 2008.
The succeeding tracks show her new sound – remarkably more mature, sophisticated and self-assured, with her voice front and center.
“I want to invite someone to come inside / Someone to find my truth,” she sings in French in the jazzy “Ore no Kanojo” (My Girlfriend), a song about intimate revelations. Another unconventional track by Japanese pop music standards is “Tomodachi” (Friend), sang from the perspective of a gay person falling in love with someone who is straight.
“Tomodachi” is one of the three songs featuring an artist other than Utada, whose last collaboration was with Yamada Masashi for the "Ultra Blue" track “One Night Magic” in 2006. She worked with Nariaki Obukuro, CEO of the indie label Tokyo Recordings, for the newly released friendzone anthem.
“Boukyaku” (Forgotten) featuring hip-hop sensation Kohh is a standout track in the album, with pain-filled lyrics set against an ambient haze. But perhaps the most popular collaboration here is “Nijikan Dake no Vacance” (Two-hour Vacation) with singer-songwriter Shiina Ringo, an incredibly catchy song about a desire to briefly escape the daily grind.
After listening to "Fantôme" several times throughout the week, two emerged as personal favorites: the artful lullaby-slash-eulogy “Ningyo” (Mermaid) and the breath-filled “Kouya no Ookami” (Wolf of the Wilderness), inspired by German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel “Steppenwolf.”
“Still unable to return home,” Utada sings in Japanese in “Ningyo,” a song that resonates with poetic grace.
With its cheerful and optimistic tone, “Jinsei Saikou no Hi” (The Best Day of My Life) is certainly worth a listen, but its place in the album – right after the intense “Boukyaku” – lessened its impact.
The three remaining tracks in Fantôme are already familiar to Utada’s fans. “Hanataba wo Kimi” (A Bouquet of Flowers for You) and “Manatsu no Tooriame” (Midsummer Shower) were released as singles and used as themes for TV shows; while “Sakura Nagashi” (Flowing Cherry Blossoms) is a 2012 song featured in the animated film “Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.”
Utada is known for pouring her heart and soul into every album, and the authentic sound of "Fantôme" effectively shows how she has greatly matured as an artist.
It may not be her most approachable album – for first-timers, try "Deep River" or "This is the One" – but it is certainly her best work to date. 9.5/10