Sunday Night Playlist: Utada – This is the One review

Nota Bene: This review was originally written on 11/12/2009, featuring one of my favorite Japanese pop singers.  Looking back on it, I really liked this album.  I chose it to feature on this post for my Sunday Night Playlist because Hikki’s a versatile artist and while she’s on a hiatus at this time, I definitely look forward to seeing more from her in the future, and miss her contributions.  She’s released a single for the latest Evangelion movie in late 2012.

Utada Hikaru, also known as Utada in the U.S. (or Hikki to her loyal fans), is one of the most well known artists in the Japanese music industry, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say I have been impressed with quite a number of her songs and contributions over the years.  Many would recognize her songs as the themes to the popular Kingdom Hearts series (specifically “Simple and Clean”/”Hikari” from the original game and “Passion” from the second).  Quite a few, like myself, would know she contributed the song “Blow My Whistle” for the Rush Hour Soundtrack, and her collaborative work hasn’t been limited in either her English or Japanese career.

She’s an artist I have a high regard for, and I want to take the opportunity to express my pleasure in noting her second English album release “This is the One”.  I took quite a while to listen to this album, because I wanted it to grow on me, and I have to say – this is a solid album from beginning to end – particularly since Utada manages to keep in the current spectrum of R&B with a bit of a distinctive flair.  The only thing I’d have to say in terms of constructive criticism is that there are moments on the album where I think she overarches her material in effect to make it mainstream, but it turns out with all the cliches that aren’t really representative of the genre in a good way (“Poppin” sounds far too oversexed and processed to really stand in the same vein of the stronger songs here, but like I mentioned with BoA’s album – if it appeals to your style, it won’t bother you all that much, and you might even laugh along with it because it doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously).

Review follows after the tracklisting and album cover.

thisistheoneutadaalbumcoverroseUtada – “This is the One”
Released: March 19, 2009

1. Come Back to Me (3:57)
2. Me Muero (3:25)
3. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – FYI (3:49)
4. Apple and Cinnamon (4:38)
5.  Taking My Money Back (3:12)
6.  This One (Crying Like A Child) (4:30)
7.  Automatic Part II (3:00)
8.  Dirty Desire (3:51)
9.  Poppin(3:31)
10.  On and On (3:25)

Bonus Tracks: (Japanese Release)
1. Come Back to Me (Seamus Haji and Paul Emmanuel Radio Edit)  (4:03)
2. Come Back to Me (Quentin Harris Radio Edit) (4:23)

Bonus Tracks (English Release – Physical CD only)
1.  Simple and Clean (5:03)
2.  Sanctuary (Opening) (4:25)
3.  Sanctuary (Ending) (5:58)

I’ve heard a lot of mixed opinions on this album before hearing it for the first time, and to be honest I do applaud Utada for making the effort to release an mainstream album, but I think in some ways it worked extremely well (“On and On”, “Come Back to Me”, “This One (Crying Like a Child) )  while others seemed a bit overarching, lending me to have a mixed opinion despite the album flowing cohesively and very true to its root sound throughout.

The first four songs on the album feature excellent production standards from Stargate, and I have to say they’re strong opening songs for the album when taken in overall context.

Starting with “Come Back to Me” – this was a great song to release as a first single for the album.  The MV for it was beautiful – and it has a solid R&B sound. I would say it was ten times better than the first single for the first album, “Easy Breezy”, even if there are some pieces of cliche within it to cite, I wouldn’t say it detracted from the song overall, because the lyrical flow and cohesiveness actually make it stand out.  The song presents itself as an honest portrayal of regret in a relationship. The sound, production and Utada’s vocals are pristine here.  “Me Muero” has great flow and is easy on the ears with an urban and Latin flare (if evidenced by the intro), but if you strip the song apart on its meaning – its a rather dark song.  The thematic is bent on the note of self-destruction and decay due to loneliness.  The premise focuses itself on a lover “gone to Istanbul”, and Utada sings about the loneliness that sets in with everything from mundane tasks to mentioning Wynona Rider – which I found very interesting.  I think it’s another of the album’s strongly asserted songs, and even considering its premise, I wouldn’t be surprised if it could be marketed as a potential single.

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – FYI” is a bit more melodic the the former songs, but retains a very distinct attitude that makes it stand out among the tracks that follow it – Utada’s smooth delivery gives it a flawless, silky feel.  There’s actually a movie called “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” which features David Bowie, created back in 1983.  I didn’t know if there was a subtle reference to the movie or its content at first, but then I realized something – the track was a remix of the original composition of the piece on the soundtrack to that movie.  I thought it was nice to note, even if it would have interesting if Utada had found some way to weave that urban remix to a theme revolving around the movie’s content as well.  I’m not complaining however, it’s a great song.

“Apple and Cinnamon” is one of my favorite tracks -a beautiful ballad with synthesized inflections that only pepper and serve to compilment the tone.  Flow is appropriate and the lyricism comes across as genuine and gorgeously sung.  It’s more along the lines of what I like from both Utada’s English and Japanese albums, how she can take a song – taking the R&B root and progressing out of the box with the sound, while taking a simple theme and delivering it with convincing honesty.

The fifth track of “This is the One” marks a turn for a more mainstream sound on the album. “Taking My Money Back” shows that Utada’s very much in touch with modern R&B, and it helps that Christopher “Tricky” Stewart was among the producers/writers for this alongside some of the other tracks.  This is one of the better offerings in that set, I believe, because it sounds natural and with a very nice tonality – reminded me of one of Mary J. Blige’s more modern offerings.  “This One (Crying Like A Child)” works a bit in the same vein, though a little more on the pop-R&B ballad side than straight ticket R&B/urban.  The inflections are smooth and Utada’s delivery is gorgeous.  I would actually award this as one of the tracks that has the best lyrics on the album, sharing the title with “Apple and Cinnamon”.  It sounds a little like a Mary J. Blige sound in more modern leanings, though I can’t pin down what specific song it resembles.

Now we come to the part of the album that I think may tip a few in one or two different directions.  On one hand, some of these songs suffer from the attempt to make them sound more mainstream and with a force-fed bluntness rather than a unique sense of grit/attitude.  “Automatic Part II” was one of the better ones in terms of flow – and I actually liked it. It takes the progression of the original song on one of her first Japanese albums, and turns it into a song with punch – *sound* wise.  Other than that, it really doesn’t have any other commonalities with the original song.  I don’t mind the lyrics too much – while I wouldn’t say they have the punch and thematic some of the other songs on the album have – you get the impression she’s going for casual flow and assertiveness, referencing Island Def Jam even to note where she is on her scale.

“Dirty Desire” reminds me of a song called “Dangerous” by melody., featured on her “Ready to Go” album. I don’t know if anyone outside of knowing Japanese pop music would know that song, but it’s in English and has a similar infectiousness to this song.  Pop with synth inflections and sensual in tone.  I don’t dislike it to be honest, it’s catchy even if a bit on the generic side of things.  But you really can’t take this song that seriously, and could be a good song to dance to, particularly with the dubbing and potential for mixing – maybe in the same way “Devil Inside” was back when “Exodus” came out.

“Poppin”….wow.   I have no other words I could say in succinct terms than ‘wow’. I could say a thousand other things about this song in terms of comparison, but even most mainstream music doesn’t quite sound to this.  It’s not so much that I dislike the production values or Utada’s delivery/flow – those aren’t the issue at all.  It’s just so tacky and oversexed to the point where it’s very cheesy – it doesn’t sound like her, not even in the measure of being more laidback.  Just shows the worst qualities of what exists in the genre this time – generic, oversexed lyricism and nothing original about it.  I highly respect Utada and applaud her for going in some mainstream progressions, but I hope that she doesn’t go this route with her other songs as she does in this particular song. Worst song of the album, point blank, at least in my opinion.

The main album concludes with “On and On,”  which actually ended the album on a good note for me.  The dubbing, mixing and flow is distinctly urban and does very well with flow. As far as the content goes, I’d liken it to a Ciara song, dance worthy, but you probably wouldn’t remember it for its content.  Another potential song that would be great to dance to.

I’m glad that Utada decided to include versions of “Simple and Clean” and “Sanctuary” on her physical release because they were very pleasant to listen to and worth collecting the album for, in addition to the collective body of songs on this album.  As for the Japanese bonus tracks, I can’t say more about them other than that they’re both VERY strong versions of “Come Back to Me” – the Seamus Haji and Paul Emanuel version has better flow in the verses to me than the chorus, but still executes itself quite strongly.  Quentin Harris’s Radio Mix has the better dubbing across both chorus and verses, but isn’t quite as infectious to dance to as the former.

Overall – I think at the very least “This is the One” has better market value than her previous album, but I wish it did dial back a little in the places where I mentioned it tried too hard to be mainstream.  If she can balance out her natural talents and R&B material with the modern scope without dipping into so many cliches, I think she’ll be fine.  At the very least, she offers an effort that’s enjoyable and worth listening to more than once.

Overall score: 7.5/10

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