Thursday, June 21, 2007

Utada Hikaru - Exodus, Overview

Way back in the day (2004), Hikki unleashed Exodus upon the western world, the irony being that it eventually wound up selling better in Japan, likely due to brand appeal. It caused a bit of an uproar on the now defunct forums, and I wanted to clarify my own feelings about the album as a whole.

So I did, sharing some notes with a few of my peers over GMail. I probably expended a lot more effort than I should have, but I was in one of those productive zones, and the alternative was to be completely unproductive in something else, which I noted in my opening e-mail. Given the ridiculous amount of verbiage used, it's a shame to have it all locked up.

I should have done this earlier, when I was transferring all of the old content. Now, things aren't going to be quite as tidy, but better late than never. One reason I was sort of against the idea was that I made notes for each track in a separate message, most of which are entry length. But there's really no way around it.

So, what follows is the posting of the introduction and overview section. There is a bit of a time gap — after all, these notes are almost 3 years old. Also, in the past I insisted on using the given name Hikaru, instead of say, Utada, or her nickname Hikki. These days, I've caved in and admitted that Hikki just sounds less awkward than Hikaru, and it's odd to refer to any western singer by their last name, even though that is how she markets herself outside of Japan.

* * *

I suppose this is going to be a bit of a spoiler, so I'll pad this introduction with sufficient verbage to fill up GMail's preview pane. I guess first off, what did I think of the album? Up to this point, it's ok. That's the reaction I typically give, though, especially after looping every single track for at least 10 minutes after the first pass. I rarely feel too strongly about albums, unless they're extremely good (which in my eyes would be something like Robert Miles' 23am or Ulrich Schnauss' Far Away Trains) or extremely poor (I've yet to seriously condemn anything). The rest is, meh. This is sort of a meh album. It's not spectacular. I will give it that it is ambitious in scope and style, and could represent a major shift in her direction. To me, it doesn't really matter where she goes, stylistically, as long as she does it well. The execution is not done
so well here, and for me that stops it from being an amazing experience.

The album is not without controversy on the forums, at least. I share many of the criticisms levelled against Hikaru by the more outspoken members. I differ in that I'm not going to be condescending, asinine, beat people over the head with attacks, and I'll actually try to give examples from the tracks. The criticisms don't break the album for me, but I'm pretty resilient, maybe due to a bit of bias. They have certainly broken the album for others. First off, her previous style is almost non-existent. If you're expecting to hear slow movements like Deep River, or Final Distance, think again. There are none. Everything is more or less moderate tempo. Hikaru has adopted a much more rockish/rawkish style. It'll be interesting to see if her next Japanese album (if there is one) will return to her more conservative roots.

With the more Americanized style, perhaps born out of necessity, or perhaps because she really is an insane party animal and she can run amok outside of Japan, comes sexually charged lyrics. Her classy image has kind of been thrown out the window, which irks me. At least she's mostly coy about it. It's not hard to get the lyrics: they're pretty accessible, and descriptive. They cover some interesting topics, to say the least.

For the record, Easy Breezy is not representative of the entire album. That should come as a relief. Each track is pretty encapsulated, with styles sufficiently different that the atmosphere from one track won't carry to the next, and there is no strong sense of unity. We're into the age of single track downloads and sales, so I'm not too concerned about it. said that OK Computer was the last album that had to be treated as a cohesive whole.

Ok, on to the technical bits. The background is heavyily synthesized. Cheaply synthesized. It's not impossible to inject some warmth into digital samples - Ulrich Schanuss does it all the time - but I think that the current backgrounds, when they're not playing more prominent roles, don't back up her up, and don't really blend. On a lot of the tracks, I can choose to hear backgrounds, or her voice, but it's hard to do both. Some tracks are experimental enough to warrant the electronica invasion, but when they sound like the backgrounds for Super Mario Brothers...1 (that's right), or Tetris, or some other 8-bit MIDI, they're better left out. This isn't a question about style. Previously a lot of her tracks blended well, were supported, were rich and organic. This is case of poor arrangement and choice of instumentation. It's not hard to replace some of the effects with live instruments since some try to mimic live instruments anyway.

So if style and image don't carry over to Exodus, the very least that she can take with her is awesome vocal talents, described as a rich, mature, alto. She does for the most part, but it's definitely not as strong as it could have been. Seeing her perform in MTV Unplugged and Budokan 2004 (Hikaru no 5), there's no question that she can hit the highs and lows, preserve her tonal quality, and make it look so easy. Kettobase demonstrates that she can perform some vocal gymnastics, as well.

So this is probably the most perplexing element of Exodus. Where did that strength go? She hits the highs and lows, yes, but the highs are strained, bordering on shrill and ear bleeding with these headphones. I have a theory about that, which I can elaborate on when I get to Kremlin Dusk (remind me if I forget). When she hits the lows, they've lost their richness. Maybe she turned in a half-hearted recording session (doubtful), or maybe she's jumped the shark (over the hill, past her prime, also doubtful, and believing that will probably get me, or you, lynched), or maybe all that tonal quality was sampled away, evaporated by the synthesizers and the mixers (likely, at least I hope so). That was a disappointment, the biggest let down. If that's the case, then that's a poor choice of production values (or where the production chooses to place their values). I'd choose vocal ability over shiny production values.

I think that about covers it. I'm thinking of splitting this thing up, one track per message, since I have to get lunch. This is more interesting than writing my work term report.