Ai Otsuka’s “LOVE TRiCKY”

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Ai Otsuka / LOVE TRiCKY / April 22, 2015

What does it take to make a successful comeback? According to Avex Trax, it’s a mix of collaborations and dance music. In the late 00’s, Namie Amuro’s hip-hop style tapered off until reaching the electronic zenith of 2013’s FEEL (not necessarily a big change, rather than a step back to the type of music the superstar debuted with). Last year, Ayumi Hamasaki collaborated with a whole roster of international dance producers after a slew of unsuccessful albums that were poorly received by both critics and fans. hitomi’s last few albums, Ami Suzuki’s DOLCE and Supreme Show…Avex practically has an emergency roster of producers behind glass, ready and waiting to assist. But whether they’ve been “successful” or not is, in fact, a tougher question of audience reception versus actual sales numbers.

Because there are no fresh faces in J-pop primed to take over (let’s pause for a chuckle over those few naive years we thought Meisa Kuroki was maybe, possibly, could have…nope), our perennial pop stars continue to fight for relevance, some bitterly, some gamely. Ai Otsuka would never be the artist anyone would associate with dance music: since a young age, Otsuka has composed and produced her own music, some fluffy pop songs, others more acoustic, all the while known for her adorably tender ballads usually accompanied by soaring piano chords. However, even in last year’s LOVE FANTASTIC, a slightly more evolving sound could be heard emerging. Unfortunately, while musically it was a solid, albeit not extraordinary, album, it only debuted at #22 on the Oricon chart, and fell rapidly from there. This year’s LOVE TRiCKY makes no compunction about its scramble for victory. Veteran Avex Trax producer, Abe Noboru, known as STUDIO APARTMENT, was brought in to produce the album, and his style is both obvious, and critical, to what has made this album such a triumph.

Standout tracks “laugh” and “affair” drive home the album’s thesis: the former a fantasy-destination, propulsive EDM number, the latter the kind of song that would have been less than compelling, but in the hands of Noboru becomes a haunting, almost violent song, coaxing Otsuka into actual wails. While her vocals may not always be up for the task before her, there’s something provocative about these songs: it’s not the themes of love we’re used to hearing Otsuka explore, as if this album is her mature understanding of how complicated and sticky the word can get when we open ourselves to temptations and succumb to cravings. Yet it’s manic and lusty without being  rapacious. The “old” Ai Otsuka isn’t so much dead and gone, as living vicariously through her riskier avatar. Delicate tracks are still present (“summer lovely days,” “reach for the moon”), but function more as afterthoughts.

Whether or not LOVE TRiCKY is a permanent musical change, or just an exercise in reaching out to a new audience and reconnecting with fans who had grown up and went astray (hint: the album only debuted this week at #24), the album is an accomplishment: an accomplishment for pop music, for dance music, and for Ai Otsuka. Avex Trax might have a formula to address their artists’ panic, but it can work. History shows that others haven’t always followed up — Ami Suzuki, hitomi, and  recently Ayumi Hamaski’s careful and deliberate switch back to a familiar style on A ONE. Regardless, these collaborations, like LOVE TRiCKY, are audacious, beautiful achievements, even in the short term, even just for the length it takes for the CD to play from start to finish.

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