(yes, I know this isn’t the official cover- will replace when it is released)
A new Ayumi Hamasaki album is always quite the gamble for yours truly. Usually the end result is a pleasant mess, with a few great songs mixed in with a main body of decent- but ultimately forgettable tunes. Recent albums have not managed to get much playtime- and have usually been buried by whatever releases surround them. Indeed, the golden age of “New Ayumi Hamasaki OMG!” has passed for this reviewer- but I still keep up with her, mainly out of pure respect. So, when Made In Japan was released last week via Avex‘s digital streaming service AWA (which, for whatever stroke of genius- is geo-blocked everywhere but Japan) I was already lining up the jokes before even listening to it.
However, I was shocked. Did I really just hear that? Peak era quality Hamasaki in 2016? Surely not! But damn it. I did hear it! It was from here that the album began to haunt me, creeping into my thoughts. Why had such a late game Ayumi Hamasaki album managed to affect me (and what looks to be many, many others) so greatly? The most obvious answer of course- is runtime. At only 43 minutes (including the bonus track cover of globe’s “Many Classic Moments”), it never manages to reach that cringe inducing level of fatigue that so many of Hamasaki’s later releases do. It has a well thought out, smart structured playlist that flows very nicely from start to end. The other main reason it works so well is that she didn’t try anything too “daring” or goofy this time. She just did what she should have been doing for the last 4 or 5 releases- taking a good look at what made her so good to begin with- and sticking to it. While this may be a criticism for some other acts- for a diva like figure such as Hamasaki- this is what works.
Whether it be a GUILTY-era esque hard rockers like “FLOWER” (with it’s breathtaking chorus complete with her best vocals in years), MY STORY level quality ballads like “Breakdown” (with it’s surprising rocky ending) and “Survivor” or it’s delightfully cheesy closing dance tracks like “Summer Love” and the aforementioned globe cover- everything here works in context as an album. Sure, there’s nothing ‘new’ here- but that is 100% truly fine with this reviewer. It will delight her fans and hey- that’s who really matters in the end, right?
Ayumi Hamasaki has worked a small miracle by simply doing something she has always had- playing to her strengths, cutting out the fat, and most of all- showing more confidence than she has for a long, long time. The listener can feel that Ayumi is legitimately involved with her project- and not a second is wasted during its runtime. Yes, the digital release method through AWA is questionable- and likely will be one of the main focus points for some listeners, but ultimately, what it comes down to, is that this is Ayumi Hamasaki’s best album in almost a decade. Fans will eat this one up. We can only hope that this seemingly sudden spark of inspiration will continue into future works. If not, enjoy this little gem while it lasts.
8/10- Ayumi Hamasaki fans, get ready to start typing “SLAY” anywhere and everywhere.