Hikaru Utada’s “ULTRA BLUE”

Hikaru Utada / ULTRA BLUE / June 14, 2006
02. Keep Tryin’ / 03. BLUE / 10. WINGS / 11. Be My Last

Coming into Hikaru Utada’s album, I was prepared. Over the years, I have grown wise to Utada’s trickery; churning out more than welcome singles only to offer up lackluster albums at the end of the Oricon #1s circuit. Enjoying each single only prepared me for the cruel blow I knew my gut would receive after I listened to the new album, ULTRA BLUE, and came away disappointed. This time, I was stocked with enough ammunition to cross the Sierras.

During the album’s duration I tended to quickly skip over previously released singles, like “Keep Tryin'” and “COLORS,” which already proved their merit at the time of their release and have since been played and replayed to oblivion. Unfortunately, this leaves the record with about six actual ‘new’ songs, plus one pesky filler interlude.

The disc begins with “This Is Love,” a catchy dance number that would not have seemed out of place beside “Devil Inside” on Utada’s failure of an English debut album, EXODUS (where was that song when you needed it?). It’s quite an enjoyable song, two songs down the line however, and I would wonder why in the world they did not begin the album with “BLUE,” an equally catchy number that both captures the essence of the album’s title and the heart of the listener much more sufficiently than “This Is Love.” The next original song is “Nichiyou no Asa,” whose sound heralds back to a certain DISTANCE album, where hip hop and R&B were Utada’s strongest feats and most prominent features. It’s catchy and has a good beat, but expendable at best, dross at worst. “Making Love” is another funky pop number that if anything, proves Utada has ditched her heavy vibrato for a lighter, fluffier sound. Basically, “This Is Love,” “BLUE,” “Nichiyou no Asa,” and “Making Love” form a quartet of similar sounding dancey-pop numbers interrupted by the brilliantly quirky “Keep Tryin'”; fine for my casual listening needs, but nothing I’d want to repeat more than a handful of times.

The second half of the album is utterly lacking in style. It seems all of the catchy numbers with the clever hooks were used up at the onset of the album to draw in the listener. Unfortunately, the listener is now subjected to a slow, and rather dull ride through a hip-pop collaboration (“One Night Magic”), avant-garde art-pop (“kairo”), and a Rent soundtrack clone (“WINGS”). This dull triad finally grinds to a halt with the appearance of single “Be My Last,” one of the most beautiful ballads Utada has penned since “SAKURA DROPS.” With its acoustic base and mystical synth undertones, even she can’t mess up the song by humming/lala-ing through a fair enough portion of the lyrical content. This album would have been tighter if not for the skippable “Eclipse (Interlude),” which only detracted from what cold have been a dreamy duo, as it is followed by the Kingdom Hearts number “Passion,” an utter hybrid masterpiece of synth pop/rock.

For the most part, this album exemplifies the notion that your parts can be better than the whole. The first half of the album has potential, introducing the big pop numbers and singles, but the sunny day eventually segue ways into a nightmare of slow number showers that rain on the parade of what could be a remarkable album but ends up with only three out of five stars for the rude intrusions along the way.

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