Michiru Hoshino’s “YOU LOVE ME”


Michiru Hoshino / YOU LOVE ME / September 02, 2015

It’s hard to keep up to date with Michiru Hoshino — she’s not a relevant or popular enough J-pop figure to feature in popular news outlets, despite being a former Team-A AKB48 member. It’s always been Hoshino’s dream to compose her own music, and she seems to have found her niche in the indie market, penning low-key, natsukashii jams. She’s also a staple presence at Tower Records, itself now a short term for forward-thinking, yesterday-sounding idol groups like Negicco and Vanilla Beans. So it was surprising to learn she had already released another album before anyone had the chance to anticipate it.

E・I・E・N Voyage was one of my favorite albums of 2014, and A/W COLLECTION ~Anata to Watashi no Collection~, a small collection of B-sides and extras, followed shortly afterwards. YOU LOVE ME more today than yesterday but not as much as tomorrow shows small, but important maturation: there’s a lot more of an oldies vibe, such as the sweet “Be My Baby” drums and crooning on “Sakamichi no Tochuu,” and both “YOU LOVE ME” and “MISTY NIGHT, MISTY MORNING”‘s chipper piano chords. The synthpop of “Chotto SOMETHING NEW” is about as upbeat and contemporary as the album is ever going to get, but it’s to the album’s benefit that it remains as calm as a water park in October. At times, she’s still falling into the trap of trying to sound a little too much like Pizzicato Five right after they peaked, when Konishi started to make everything sound just a little too much like a Main Street parade at Disney (“INTERSTELLAR”), but there’s a good chance the next track will always take things back down to a more easygoing level. To his credit, Konishi has a hand in one of the greatest songs on the album “Natsu Nandashi” (re: Happy End), just to prove he’s now staying above it. This is a beauty of a record, a mellow mish-mash of several decades, genres, and sounds. Hoshino’s vocals aren’t without flaws, but they suit the songs.

Unless idols, from AKB48 or otherwise, go on to do all the things we expect them to — modeling, acting, talk shows — they don’t always surpass their formative years. There are rare exceptions like Tomomi Itano, but Michiru Hoshino has taken an alternate route in the music industry. This isn’t to say that everyone following her example would, or could, succeed, but it seems to have worked for her: she consistently releases joyful pop tunes on par with the best that the J-indie world has to offer.

2015 mid-year report


2015 has offered a number of notable releases so far: so much so, in fact, that narrowing it down to discuss the highlights without resorting to a wall of YouTube videos is difficult. For the purposes of this blog, I’ve chosen to focus exclusively on Japanese and Korean pop, omitting digressions on American pop, electronic, and Bollywood soundtracks, which sometimes crop up here. I think you’ll find plenty to sample and I encourage you all to share anything you may have found particularly awesome that I missed.

The Annual Yasutaka Update


So here’s a first: Perfume released a new single and it barely registered. The trio has been getting more Internet buzz over their SXSW performance (I mean, it seems pretty cool, but it’s kind of hard to tell with all the annoying camera angles and visual effects splashing across the actual performance). For years now, Perfume has focused on live, especially overseas, performances, and songs that enhance those performances: singles aren’t so much indicative of Nakata himself, Perfume-as-statement, or even advertising anymore — they’re just the fuel that keeps the tour bus rolling. It’s hard to be completely disappointed by a Perfume single, though. Even when the A-side isn’t the newest addition to your workout playlist you were hoping for, the B and C-sides always offer alternatives. That said, “Relax In The City” isn’t bad, but it is largely superfluous next to “Pick Me Up” and “Toumei Ningen.” As Kashiyuka pointed out in an interview, it’s very Yasutaka Nakata to hide the more commercial crowd-pleasers at the back (remember “Hurly Burly” on Spending all my time?) He’s one producer who likes to dole out rewards only if you’re paying attention.

capsule’s latest original album, WAVE RUNNER, is something of a mixed bag with few really great standout tracks; it’s business as usual as the follow-up to the experimental CAPSLOCK. We also got Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s single “Mondai GIRL.” While I appreciate Kyary as an artist, I’m not always happy with Nakata’s work with her, but “Mondai GIRL” proves how perfect the pieces can fall into place when the producer steps away from the xylophones. As always, the kiddie orgel ticks and marching drums are almost completely absent from every great Kyary song: I’ll remember this every time Mito Natsume releases any music with Nakata and won’t even bother. Instead, it’ll be nice to see if Nakata produces any more one-offs like the excellent “Music Flyer” on E-girls’ E.G.TIME: I always enjoy hearing what magic he can conjure for artists outside of his usual roster.

Girls On Top


Thanks to some wrinkle in time, we were blessed with four long-time top Avex female artists’ albums this year. Are you there God? It’s me, grateful. To halt anticipation, I’ve never been a Kuu fan, despite my repeated visits to her back catalog, so WALK OF MY LIFE is a non-conversation. To a large extent, neither is Ayumi Hamsaki’s A ONE. But the album has some really beautiful moments: this is the first Ayumi album in years that has felt like a solid, cohesive whole. It has some breathtaking moments (the last two minutes of “Out of control,” “The Show Must Go On,” the lively cover of “Movin’ on without you” — wow! What a gentle, grand statement that Ayumi covered a Hikaru Utada song to prove that any competition between those two was always fabricated by the record companies and not by the two women themselves) that really round out what have been some truly awful career lows.

Obviously, Ai Otsuka’s LOVE TRiCKY is my favorite of the four so far (read the full review here), but it’s worth spilling a few words on Namie Amuro’s _genic, an album so uniformly perfect, it’s almost not worth listening to more than once. This album is pure pop gold, but it offers little extra on repeat listens. As Otsuka’s album is dark and vulpine, Amuro’s is effortless and seasoned. _genic is trendy hooks, high production value, and class: it’s hard to find cracks in something that already seems iconic, songs that were precisely chosen to bewitch you in the first 20 seconds, except that it’s perhaps all just very glossy surface, and I imagine many people can find fault in that the same way some people prefer the pops, hisses, and scratches in a vinyl record over 320kbps mp3 files. You can’t please everyone.



Post-Golden Age, good, but not necessarily great, things are happening in K-pop. Ever since Jessica’s departure from Girls’ Generation, we’ve gotten a lot of artists mimicking their debut album in a very short nostalgia turnover: OH MY GIRL’s “Cupid” and G-Friend’s “Glass Bead” are the first that come to mind. The standouts for me this year so far have been AMBER’s solo EP BEAUTIFUL, miss A’s fun “Dareun Namja Malgo Neo” and BoA’s “Kiss My Lips” (the single, not the album, which is just okay). I get the feeling many people haven’t been wowed by BIG BANG’S MADE project, or maybe that perception is just an extension of my own disappointment. The group’s releases used to be events that seemingly everyone in the K-pop fandom could get behind. Now it just seems that stretching out singles over the course of a few months is tedious and suspect, kind of like splitting the last season of an iconic show in two. Sometimes it feels that the context of other songs on an album can really change your mind about particular songs that just seem off: now all these stand-alone tracks feel obvious and not a bit whelming. Just because G-Dragon composed it and T.O.P has a really cool new haircut doesn’t make it worthy of applause, or the music videos any less problematic. Basically I’ve largely ignored the new songs up until now due to meh.

Idol Corner


OK guys, brace yourselves, we’re gonna crank this one out, because idols are everywhere now and you can’t download a rar file or follow a tumblr without stumbling across this stuff and it’s been my year’s goal to start embracing more idol-pop and I feel I’ve mastered the rhythms when I can make a statement like: And anyway, there’s some decent stuff out there. On principle I cannot in good conscience discuss AKB48 anymore, so let’s just say that whether or not you believe that good music can stand on its own, far apart from its commercial, or more prurient interests, AKB always manages to get in those one or two songs that surprise you: if among the deluge of choices on their new album Koko ga Rhodes de, Koko de Tobe! (with all editions packing thirty-eight songs) you can’t find at least two songs that make you hesitant to dismiss the music completely, maybe J-pop is not the genre for you.

We had fantastic albums from Negicco and Luna Haruna and an okay album from Avex idols X21, and more of the same from Johnny’s groups like Hey! Say! JUMP (again, again there’s usually at least one song I can sink my teeth into, and so it is with JUMPing car‘s “Boys Don’t Stop”). I’m not sure if Shoujo X is commendable just because X21 is an Avex group and I’m now so deeply invested that to reject outright any of their output without giving it an honest try is so repugnant that is sends me into lonely spirals of repeat listens, but it’s a group that I’ll be monitoring in the future.

PASSPO☆’s Beef or Chicken? has had the most repeat value for me this year, an album that I keep playing over and over because of how fun it is. The promo “Honey Dish” is the album’s highlight, lending it the vintage-y pop style the album was going for, without abandoning the group’s hard rock style or falling into the Meghan Trainer trap of cloying, wince-inducing brass as Yuma Nakayama’s “YOLO moment” — I genuinely like this guy and think he has potential as a soloist, but the YOLO reference feels dated and the 50’s soda shop-pop doesn’t feel fresh enough to be a classic, rather then just a hopeful, throwback. I’m on board for rolled up jean cuffs and ties under varsity jackets, but only if the angle is more than just earnest heartthrob: am I the only one who feels this is really more of an homage to the 80’s-referencing-the-50’s? It just screams 80’s teen flicks more than 50’s surf movies. I guess I just want to like the guy more than I do and will scale back my ire when it’s so hard to find good male solo artists.

And finally, here are some interesting newcomers to keep an eye out for: Maria’s “HURRICANE” is an adorable slice of “chame-rock” (playful/mischievous rock). I understand that after the perceived success of BABYMETAL et al., there’s a push for more rock/metal idols but even more hyper-specific, with just-that-little-bit-different angle, but this one seems a little more Blue Hearts than so many of the heavy metal idols coming out. Everyone’s Ramones bangs are a great backdrop for the song (a cover of Chanels/Rats & Star), even when the backpacks look like a pain to dance in. Cupitron and callme are both going for Perfume tributes here — callme even has the unoriginal primary colored square mod dresses going for them — but they’re both worth keeping an eye on. callme are Avex (yeah, there’s that) and are composed of former Dorothy Little Happy members. Cupitron’s outfits were designed by Tomoe Shinohara, which is enough to pique my interest. Ayumikurikamaki: This is just fun.

Special mentions


Shout outs to the following fun records:

Hanae’s Jokyo Shoko
uchuu,’s HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, (token J-rock)
E-girls’ E.G. TIME
Sakurako Ohara’s HAPPY

For more great music I haven’t featured here, please browse the Notable Releases tag over at tumblr.

On the horizon

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to in the rest of 2015: Girls’ Generation’s new album (sometime in July?), more singles from TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE (an album might not be imminent this year, but I guess anything’s possible), more stuff from Tomomi Itano (whose “Gimme Gimme Luv” will be a great summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s mini-album (August), CL’s debut (I don’t think this will necessarily make her a huge overseas contender, but I’m criminally curious what this will look and sound like), anything more that will or will not happen with f(x) this year, and finally, an honest to goodness fun Bollywood soundtrack, which has been seriously lacking this year.

Ai Otsuka’s “LOVE TRiCKY”


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.

Tomohisa Yamashita’s “YOU”


Tomohisa Yamashita / YOU / October 08, 2014

Tomohisa Yamashita is either the greatest or worst experiment in current J-pop history. He’s one of those superstars that Johnny & Associates aren’t quite sure what to do with: on one hand, they want him to be the ideal J-pop heart throb, crooning mellow, buttery pop songs and indulging his fan club members (“Sweeties”) at every opportunity, whether by packaging his CDs with undergarments, or seductively unbuttoning his clothes on concert tours. On the other hand, he’s given the opportunity to release some of the most interesting electronic dance songs in J-pop, gems that are hidden away as B-sides that never see the light of an album release; yet we know the management company is aware of the treasure they’ve got, or else they wouldn’t be performed at every concert as if they were hit singles. Because of this, you can literally split Yamashita’s songs into two categories: typical Japanese pop, with a few R&B or Latin-inspired numbers, or heavily Western-influenced electropop. This has been the strategy since day one, when he released his first album, SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD, a two disc set with the first featuring the former, and the second disc featuring the latter.

While I’m not too keen on the typical Johnny’s numbers, I will say they have grown on me, in the way that once you’ve decided you like somebody, you tend to be a lot more forgiving of his shortcomings. And I do like Yamapi, as he’s known to his fans — he doesn’t have the greatest voice or even a unique stage presence (a lot of his recent concepts, especially the 2013 A NUDE tour, have been inspired by/blatantly copied off of Michael Jackson, Johnny’s current obsession), but he is an incredible dancer and, whether or not he has much say in it, he is making a lot of bold choices in his discography. Are there really any genuinely popular, young male solo artists in Japan right now? And ones who, spur of the moment, apropos of nothing, release a limited edition dance EP with tracks produced by artists like Yasutaka Nakata and Shinichi Osawa? And then, as if remembering this is a member of Johnny’s, quickly following up with an album with zero trace of numbers like “Nocturne,” the amazing B-side to 2013’s meh SUMMER NUDE ’13? There really isn’t. Yamashita is the exception that underscores the rule that sticking to the playbook is what Japan believes is best.

And yet there’s an audible struggle here, between trying to please the young girls and their moms who spent years supporting Yamapi when he was in NEWS and appearing in countless dramas, and a performance artist trying to appeal to a wider, less niche audience. YOU, as almost all of Yamashita’s full-length albums, is a case of the former. Yamashita dedicated this album to his fans and the album is fittingly full of appeals and petty declarations to pretty girls in his more suave avatar (“Birthday Suit,” “Issho,” and “BRODIAEA”). There’s also a couple of rock and upbeat pop numbers, but overall, YOU is catchy and safe, the type of album with melodies so simple, you can start humming them after a single listen.

It appears as though Yamashita’s team will continue to release two types of music for the artist, either perpetually testing out the waters, or else just letting their star indulge in something he wants to do once in a while. It’s fairly doubtful that he would be willing to let go of his steady fan base for less lucrative, but perhaps more self-fulfilling, career choices, but it’ll never hurt to keep one eye on this guy at all times. Depending on which Yamapi camp you spend nights roasting your fantasy marshmallows in, this could be your new favorite album, or one you’ll find a lot more interesting once you see it performed live; it’ll certainly carry the less apologetic fans over until the next “LOVE CHASE” or Asobi. For those of us, it can’t come fast enough.

f(x)’s “Red Light”

f(x) / Red Light / July 07, 2014

The big question about f(x)’s new album was always going to be whether or not it stood up to last year’s Pink Tape. As far as perfect pop records go, there weren’t many contenders to Pink Tape, which kind of puts f(x) in a unique position: for some reason, I get the sense that they might not be as widely regarded as Girls’ Generation or 2NE1 (says totallyamazing: “SM has successfully sold me f(x) as the oddball younger sisters of Girls’ Generation” and mixtapesandlinernotes asserts: “It’s days like this I’m thankful that f(x) is on the fringes of the SM talent pool”), yet their output is at times far superior. Both groups have already released albums this year: GG’s Mr.Mr. inspired a collective meh from its audience, and 2NE1’s CRUSH wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was unfortunately released far too long after their last mini-album, making some wonder whether the wait was worth it, or if there should have been more substance to something that took, three singles notwithstanding, almost three years to finally cultivate. But Red Light, mere days after its release, is already respected as one of the best albums of the year, a quintessential collection of pop standards, all hovering somewhere around the three minute mark to boot.

While Red Light is certainly a more mature work than its predecessor, it functions as more of a darker sequel to the art-house aesthetic of Pink Tape (though we’re still forever jumping over Instagram filters and Urban Outfitters ads since the inception with these guys). Many tracks neatly book end each other, such as the lead electro-pop singles (“Cheos Salangni (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” and “Red Light“), the two retro (70’s disco strings in “Signal,” smooth 80’s synths in “All Night”), hip-pop (“Kick” and “Mujigae”), and the ballad ending tracks (“Ending Page” and “Jongi Shimjang (Paper Heart)”). Rather than trying to surpass the work of Pink Tape, the writers emulate a lot of what worked so well, with an overwhelming degree of success. One can’t hold a grudge against this, anymore than a group that succeeds by making drastic changes you’re not partial to. For its part, the rest of the album is just as young and  slick as we’re used to expect from the group, with subtle elements defining what really makes the album stand out (the bhangra drums on “MILK” are a particularly interesting choice, the way the last syllable in Dracula is drawn out in “Dracula” turns the sinister saccharine, and “Vacance” is a great companion to GG’s “Europa”).

Red Light will surely go down as one of the year’s highlights, especially where K-pop is concerned: there’s only a few more “comebacks” before all the major labels have flexed their finest, and the rookie groups continue to flail at a spectacular level. Red Light, while simple at its core, and almost elementary in its lyrics, is filled with some of the healthiest hooks and this-is-my-jam opportunities we’re likely to see all year.

Perfume’s “LEVEL3”


Perfume / LEVEL3 / October 02, 2013

It’s easy to think Yasutaka Nakata has lost his mind: his recent work with Harajuku fashionista Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is filled with the type of nightmare-tropes-made hip that give his particular brand of electropop a boost of the unwanted grotesque. It appears he’s honing his technique on subject matter (ninjas, fashion monsters, bonbons, eyelashes, onomatopoeia) set to the kind of stuff you’d hear at library story time, but remixed by a producer whose gift lies in empathizing with, rather than mocking, teenage girls. One would almost think he wishes he could be one. While the work he does for Kyary is an acquired taste, Perfume is still a standard, one of the few constants in Nakata’s career. Fans of Perfume have grown up alongside the trio, past their sweet donuts phase, through a one room disco, and now, in their most mature work to date, LEVEL3.

Visibly, Nocchi, Kashiyuka, and A~chan have surpassed their peers. They’ve developed a stage persona and personal aesthetic that is instantly recognizable and forever classic. Fans have come to rely on their sense of wonder, excitement, and gratitude alongside their trademark fashion silhouettes and immutable hairstyles. But to forget that all their hard work wouldn’t be possible without Yasutaka Nakata is to gravely mistake the power of great PR over the power of prodigy: the undeniably brilliant songs that Nakata pumps out at a rate Joyce Carol Oates would be proud of, and rarely hitting stumbling blocks that can’t be turned into stepping stones. These are Nakata’s best trademarks: synths, auto tune, whimsy, pretty females with airy vocals, and making the impossible look easy enough to create between naps.

While dance music has always been Nakata’s primary sound, it’s mostly hovered in capsule’s ouevre, the more experimental work that offers listeners a chance to see what the producer has been playing around with. But the work he’s done everywhere else, namely with Ami Suzuki, MEG, Kyary, and, especially, Perfume, has been solidly rooted in the pop tradition. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. and maybe a dance break in the middle has been the modus operandi of Supreme Show, GAME, BEAM, JPN, and Pamyu Pamyu REVOLUTION. LEVEL3 is a mix of purer dance elements: the repetition of vocal lines, free flowing structure, major key changes throughout, musical elements slowly added, stripped down, and added again.

These are the hallmarks of LEVEL3, the type of thing “edge” tried to be back in ’08. “PARTY MAKER” is one perfect example with almost four minutes of crescendo before the brilliant, satisfying drop. “Spending all my time (Album-mix)” a second. These album mixes are, no really, new mixes, as if they were lovingly tweaked to flow smoothly into an album that could easily have been made with no track gaps. “Spring of Life (Album-mix)” starts off with the song’s break down, killing suspense to focus on groove and letting the vocal elements coast, while “Magic of Love (Album-mix)” has a whole new synth line. The album also has quiet moments, like the melancholy of “1mm” and “Furikaeru to Iru yo;” more subtle, ever dazzling. A lot of this was probably the influence of the members, who offered input. “We requested like, “We’d like a track that can match the Dome concert where we can build large sets” or “Can we have a song in which we can make various directions, rather than just dancing?” and so on. All of the new songs on this album are very suited with our requests,” said A~chan in a recent interview. I can see the laser lights already.

While it’s difficult not hearing “Hurly Burly” instead of “Mirai no MUSEUM,” LEVEL3 is as close as ever to yet another Nakata classic. Woe to those who have forgotten Perfume has four members, not three.

Ayumi Hamasaki’s “LOVE again”


Ayumi Hamasaki / LOVE again / February 08, 2013

The consequence is one seeks love with a new person, with a new stranger. Again, the stranger is transformed into an “intimate” person, again the experience of falling in love is exhilarating and intense, and ends in the wish for a new conquest, a new love — always with the illusion that the new love will be different from the earlier ones. (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving)

It’s no secret that Hamasaki’s 14th full-length album is love’s victory lap, a straight-up, no-frills rebound to 2010’s Love songs, that strangely earnest chapter in Ayumi’s memoir that makes follow-up Party Queen seem twice as fragile and practically toxic. Plummeting sales aside, LOVE again makes no qualms about reconciling the past with the present: Hamasaki’s lyrics have always been extremely vulnerable to interpretation. Her cover art more so — take a look at the color palette when love is involved: both Love songs and LOVE again employ hazy back light, pastel pinks and peaches, a warm, white fuzziness, cozily disheveled hair. We’re so close to tipping into Glamour Shots’ diffused glow territory it’s almost a tragedy there’s no sign of Aquanet. It’s like the break-up album never happened.

Unless you’re a new fan, reviews of LOVE again are mostly apologetic, or else a begrudging acceptance of the album’s marked difference to Party Queen. Says LoKi of podcast Gaijin Kanpai: “I feel that she’s not relevant anymore, and she’s trying really hard to be relevant.” Replies Jaylee, “You got her trying to be relevant off this album?” It’s not difficult to see Hamasaki’s work in the past few years as insignificant, unless you’re Ayumi Hamasaki herself. Most of what the reigning Empress of Pop does is akin to public scrap-booking: if you don’t know who she’s dating, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know who she’s been hanging out with, check out her latest promotional video. If you want to know what designers she’s been into lately, you get the idea. Her tweeting habit alone is enough to make her seem practically furious: is there a word for relevance that only exists because you’re so legendary, no one is allowed to say “no”? Or the sadness one feels at the spectacle of it all? There’s got to be one in German.

Then there’s the music itself. “Wake me up” is sort of a perfect album opener: like (miss)understood‘s “Bold & Delicious,” it doesn’t tread lightly. Unfortunately, we’re rolling back into the deep of Hamasaki’s psyche for much of the rest of LOVE again. There are standard piano ballads, peppy rock numbers, and edgier songs like “snowy kiss,” a newbie’s “evolution” with its crazy poly-drums. These are nothing more than brief deviations. “Bye-bye darling” seems lost, kind of like “Love song” on Love songs — from whence did this come, and where can one findeth more? When the song titles aren’t limp (“petal,” “glasses,” “snowy kiss,”), we get vague references to Ayu-specific events (“untitled for her… story 2”), that we feel we’re supposed to know something about, but really know nothing about. Does someone as famous as Hamasaki get to choose what is made public and what is kept private? Have we ever figured out why there’s so much mutual violence in the “You&Me” and “snowy kiss” videos, or is this Ayumi’s new normal? Increasingly, we have to resolve that we’re all kind of trapped in Hamasaki’s dream/reality, the type of thing that happens when you’re so famous you can’t leave the house, but you have a big budget to create fantastical music videos with your future husband that may or may not be allusions to real-life events or fabricated nonsense. They’re usually both.

People fall in love many times in one lifetime: with friends, strangers, trends, music, films, themselves. It’s just as easy to fall out, maybe easier when you fall too fast and feel too much. It’s a therapeutic process to put those emotions into your work or art, as long as you don’t dramatically milk the concept more than once. And so unlike Love song‘s first-time sincerity, LOVE again is simply exhausting without any of the reward. It’s not as easy the second time: we fear the inevitable doom, the end, the fresh ink on divorce papers. It’s never easy to make poor choices in front of 866,283 followers and live your life through ViVi diary entries, but it’s difficult to applaud sheer effort after 15 years of pop stardom, or to love simply as a consolation, because it’s familiar. As Hamasaki is learning, rather than loving, the primary struggle is being loved. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to overcoming loneliness. Erich Fromm recommends discipline, concentration, and patience. Ayumi would also like to suggest a helmet.