Review Summary: Utada returns with an immaculate poem of grief, love and reconciling with one's own emotions.
It’s been seven years since we’ve last heard from Utada Hikaru and eight since we’ve heard from her in Japanese. Seven years is the kind of space that allows for pop artists to shift entirely, pivoting on their sounds to new wildly different directions. Even in the duration of just a few years, let alone seven, pop singers rotate from one sound to the next with reckless abandon - Lady Gaga ditching the club for country tinged retro pop, Madonna reimagining herself in every possible iteration, Bowie taking on enough forms to encompass a complete theatrical repertoire… It goes on. Radical change and adaptation is what makes a pop star.
But not Utada.
The Japanese American pop idol has always had an affinity for progression, her music slowly transforming album to album in slow growths that lean on the best of her previous work. As Distance took the sound of First Love and contextualized it with more complicated melodies, Ultra Blue ripped the harsh electronics of Exodus and applied them to the delicate, nuanced songwriting of Deep River. With Fantôme, she has not so much as morphed as she has expanded, seven years of life pushing her artistic character into new if not familiar territories. We know this Utada, and yet, there are still seven long years between us.
These seven years have no doubt been influential on her as well; during her hiatus, Hikki remarried, gave birth to her first child, announced herself as queer and - tragically - lost her mother to suicide. These events cannot be cleanly sorted into “good” or “bad” events as they all move and effect one another in a complicated knot. The pleasures of today are shadowed by the pain of yesterday, actively molding the artist in new forms under the weight of emotion. This interplay, swaying between misery and joy and the space in between, is perhaps Fantôme’s richest feature.
It goes without saying that Fantôme is chiefly a remembrance of Utada’s mother, her presence hovering over the entire record in its title, pained vocals and the sullen, mournful production. But like the very nature of the seven years she’s lived through, Utada refuses to occupy just one emotion: for every moment of grief, there is one of hope, joy and life. Opening the album, “Michi” harnesses a staunch resilience worn down by pain and hardship but standing tall all the same. “Even a sad song,” she sings, “will someday become fondly remembered.” The production, threaded with a surprisingly danceable energy, insists on not letting sadness get in the way of love and life.
For the rest of the record’s duration, a well trimmed forty nine minutes, Utada explores the dichotomy between affection and despair, desolation and optimism. “Nijikan Dake no Vacance,” gushing with dreamy guitar and strings, finds strength in the embrace of a friend as the upbeat “Kouya no Ookami” turns a night out into a moment of catharsis: “Tonight, take the feelings you can’t put into words / And put them into song so I can hear / Two wolves in the wilderness on a moonlit stage.” Hikki’s lyrics here are by far her most mature with elaborate metaphors and lushly realized imagery speaking to the greater themes of the project. Album highlight “Tomodachi” testifies best to this quality, her version of a torch song defamiliarized and enhanced by a poetically driven narrative. Even at her least impressive, the vaguely dull “Ore no Kanojo,” Utada’s developed lyrics makes reading translated lyrics a surprising treat.
It’s worth noting that the record’s production, handled almost exclusively by Hikki herself, is as intertextual and sumptuous as its lyricism. Though far less adventurous than ULTRA BLUE and Exodus before it, the subtle integration of electronic bass and warm, acoustic sonics give it a full bodied and thoroughly lived in character. The swirling winds of “Jinsei Saikou no Hi,” like the soothing flourishes of “Nijikan Dake no Vacane,” breathe life and emotion into Utada’s already powerful delivery. She keeps contributions from rapper KOHH from seeming cheesy with an otherworldly, ambient backing, in fact, she even manages to make it powerful. Utada is at her best work, however, when she’s at her most upbeat. “Tomodachi” is smart and lively as it takes a thick club framework and throws it against brass horns while “Kouya no Ookami” slinks and pants with confidence.
Of course, the grimmer facets of Fantôme are impossible to ignore. The closing moments of “Sakura Nagashi” are among the record’s bleakest, Utada singing, “I can’t believe we’ll never meet again / I haven’t told you anything yet,” as wrenching string arrangements collapse into complete anguish. “Everybody finds love,” she says, but it sounds like she’s lying. Love is as fleeting as life, she suggests, easily present one day and then vanished the next. It’s the intelligent duality of lines like this that make Utada’s sixth album as stunning as it is, capable of underlining one emotion with the implications of another. It’s very much an extension of the catalogue she’s established thus far, but it also reflects the complicated notions of self developed over the past seven years. Fantôme, at its core, is unafraid of conflicting emotion. Every moment of self assurance is tinged with the memory of trauma and every low moment is married to the possibility of hope: there is no such thing as just one feeling.
When the writing process for the album began several years back, Utada wondered if she’d be able to ever make music again. It is in this moment she wrote, “Ningyo,” a deceptively simple track composed of light harp and a tattering drum. She imagines herself staring into a body of water where, “When the pearl bed swayed / I felt like I could see you,” her mother appearing as a mermaid - too deep to touch but visible all the same, a phantom in the water. It’s a beautiful image and one that could act as the album’s thesis: death will inevitably take those you love away, but they will never truly be gone. You will experience sadness in their absence, but there will also be hope. There will be love.