Utada Hikaru‘s last Japanese album, HEART STATION, in this reviewers humble opinion, was a true masterpiece in the genre. Not just because it stood on it’s own right, but because it was the culmination of everything before it. Hikaru had taken all the elements she had built up and gave us a impeccably produced, truly trademark and SUBTLE album that has stood the test of time (it still sounds fresh after eight years!). Fantôme, then, should be a continuation, a homecoming. However, its not. Instead, it throws all subtlety aside and holds your hand through every track. THIS IS A SOPPY BALLAD, THIS IS A CUTE BOP. No interesting production choices here, folks, just plain, simple pop that, like, for use of a recent example, J.J Abram’s The Force Awakens, truly is there just to pander.
The opener “Michi“s intro instantly gives a glimpse of hope- THIS IS AMAZING!– but is dulled when the main melody jerks in and- while still rather pretty- also is noticeably overproduced and just a little bit ‘too much’ for any kind of real effect. By the end of the track you’ve lost interest and are simply waiting to see ‘what’s next’. The same goes for “Ore no Kanojo”. It’s so promising with it’s jazzy setup, but again, deteriorates into overproduced fluff by the time the chorus hits.
The much revered track “Nijikan Dake no Vacance” is really nothing special in the end. Just a little ditty that has the novelty of featuring Shiina Ringo on guest vocals. It’s sweet and it’s cute, but it really holds no weight with this listener, especially after hearing the potential that these two artists both can reach. This coupling should be EXTRAORDINARY, not just another radio friendly tune that blends in with everything else.
This continues for the remainder of the album, humble songs that have so much promise but feel a need to go ‘big‘, a trying lack of patience seems to be widespread across the release. What’s interesting is that out of the six tracks that have been released already, the ones this reviewer found the most lackluster and underwhelming- ballads “Hanataba wo Kimi ni” and especially “Manatsu no Tooriame” now feel the most poignant and “real“. Closer, “Sakura Nagashi” is still as brilliant as the day it was released- and while an ‘old’ track- can be forgiven because it’s just so damn good.
There is one major, surprising exception to this though- the track “Boukyaku” featuring rapper KOHH. On paper it seems like a pretty awful idea- and before I heard it I was dreading the end result. Luckily then- it does not take the ‘rap, chorus, rap’ format expected, but tries something intriguing and fresh. A brooding, almost haunting track that doesn’t let up. It gives a sense of reflection– thoughts lost in the moment. It never goes for a big cheesy payoff, and it’s rewarding because of it. It’s definitely a unique piece in the scheme of the album and truly the standout track.
Finally, one thing that must unfortunately be addressed is the mastering and mixing. None of the previews or music videos before would suggest that it would be an issue- but after hearing the final album master- it sounds as digitally brickwalled and similar to label-mate Shiina Ringo‘s latest releases. Whether this is a Universal Music thing or something that Utada has chosen herself- it really sounds quite discerning for the kind of music here. There are basically no mid-levels, highs roll off. There’s way too much hiss on Hikki‘s voice, to the point of distraction. It’s a damn shame and truly saddening to see happen to an artist such as Utada Hikaru of all people. It all accumulates to a very fatiguing experience for the listener. She and her fans deserve better than this.
But hey, perhaps I am just being a grumpy old fart with unreasonable expectations. Go ahead, lap it up. I’ll be interested in Utada Hikaru again when they reissue HEART STATION on vinyl.
6/10- Utada Hikaru’s comeback release hints at some truly amazing heights, but is squashed under its own weight and mastering issues. Let’s hope Hikki plays it less safe on future releases.