I’ve been going at J-pop for a while now, checking out a wide variety of different bands and female-fronted ensembles, digging up standard genre fare and discovering oddball native genres such as shibuya-kei along the way, long past the aftermath of discovering Utada for the first time and far outside the penumbra that composes of anything remotely similar to her. I’ve heard many a female singer sound nearly identical to another, particularly among bands such as the Cymbals
, Serani Poji
, et al. In a nutshell, they’re identical. I’ve also heard a few distinguished voices, like the raspy Shiina Ringo, and the super versatile Mariko Goto, whose voice is capable of transforming from teenybopper to terminator like the flip of a switch. Avoiding only the laziest of copycats, I’ve come back to Utada expecting to be jaded, but instead I wound up appreciating her more than ever. Not that I’ve seen everything there is to see, not even close, but the scale is level between the peerless pioneers and ponytailed posers, and among them all, Utada remains at the tippy-top.
Utada is a household name in Japan, but despite her fluency in the language and superior stardom in said country, she was actually born and raised in the United States. She moved to Tokyo in 1997, where she hit it off huge with her debut First Love
, which would soon become recognized as the highest-selling album in Japanese history. After yet another chart-destroying release, Distance
, she had wormed her way into millions of hearts and became a true pop idol, impressive considering she approached her music as a singer-songwriter rather than opting from the get-go to be the center of pop-aficionados’ shrines. Taking this approach she also avoided sex-icon status the best she could, occasionally waxing lust with collaborations such as Rush Hour 2’s
cunnilingus anthem “Blow My Whistle”, though generally she kept her image clean, and garnered respect because of it. Before she released her third album (the album currently under review), she developed cancer in the ovaries, postponing its release and promotion. Though it is true she boasts the highest album sales in Japan and that she was diagnosed with a tumor, she proved none of that could hold her down, kicking cancer’s ass and succumbing to no pressure when writing her third album. The impressive feats don’t end there either, Deep River
was a breakthrough album for Utada, both stylistically and internationally, ushering in a new era of super stardom for the gifted young songstress.
Upgrading her sweet-hearted R&B vibes while expanding the scope of her sound brings Deep River
to the top of her catalog. Utada spews out truly gorgeous vocals, bearing crystal-clear emotion to the forefront of her music. Whether it be the seductive crooning found on the title track or the supercharged, subdued passion heard on “Final Distance” (and pretty much everywhere else), her voice is gentle yet unquestionably powerful. She more or less sings this way regardless of what’s going on in the background, whether the backdrop is bouncy and danceable (“travelling”), bluesy and affectionate (“Sakura drops”) or laden with zesty guitars and electronics (“Uso Mitai na I Love You”), but nothing ever comes across as redundant or unfitting. The album’s instrumentation is varied and consistent, creating a beautiful spectrum onto which Utada spills her voice. Spicy Caribbean percussion and guitars coalesce with her romantic vocals on “Letters” to create a deliciously bittersweet vibe, while angelic, silvery pianos lull serenely elsewhere on “Final Distance”. Generally she favors electronics and guitars as the key instrumentation for Deep River
, but she manages to do so sparingly and tastefully enough that each song stands out and caresses the ears on their own unique merits. The interlude found near the end of the album, while vocally naked, manages to sum up the sonic forte of the album in little over a minute, fusing ethereal synths with a playful string section together between a light beat-driven percussion before signaling the start of album closer “Hikari”. From beginning to end, she puts on an excellent performance showing off both her singing talents and songwriting penchants, and Deep River
shows her musical evolution hit its prime.
Preceding an equally impressive Ultra Blue
, Deep River
sets a new bar for Utada, and it sets it quite high. She does her own thing among her many peers in the genre of Japanese pop, and she does it extremely well. Her superstardom began to expand to western audiences around this era of her work, propelling her beyond the native worship walls of her home country. Deep River
is an essential pop album; after searching long and hard for the next Deep River
, I’m back to the start and impressed with how Utada maintains her distinctive image and sound in between all the other artists I’ve come across. One of my first forays into J-pop, I’d recommend you make it yours too if you haven’t already started somewhere.