Review Summary: Good Mode (Utada x Floating Points) + Bad mode (Utada x Skrillex) = Okay mode (Bad Mode)
Instantly recognisable for their smooth R&B and serene performance style, Utada Hikaru’s career is as legendary now as it has been for the entirety of their adult life. Having made a landmark Oricon debut with the best selling Japanese album of all time
aged 16 with 1999’s First Love
, their triangulation of critical stock, understated celebrity appeal, and absolute public ubiquity remains virtually unrivalled. Their work sits well atop such heights of success; they’re unlikely to top any bookish all-time-great polls, but their consistent songwriting, exquisite voice and tastefully epic scope are so clear-cut that their universal palatability hardly bears explaining. Whether or not and what it means for them to be a “great” artist is beside the point when their output has been so trustworthy: their run of Japanese-language records from 2002’s Deep River
to 2018’s Hatsukoi
is a shockingly smooth stretch for a mainstream superstar, and as Hatsukoi
evidenced with near-amusing precision, there are few things in life more predictable or less disappointing than a ‘safe’ Utada album.
Their latest arrival Bad Mode
effortlessly into this lineage, something equal parts compliment and detraction given that it strives harder than any of its predecessors to sidestep their familiar set of expectations. Its opening run of popular radio singles may say otherwise, but this is easily one of their more adventurous tracklists. If it’s a little segmented, then its shifts of gear are at least distinct enough not to appear jumbled: aforementioned singles into downbeat territory into steamier R&B into an 12-minute epic house closer. Disregard the Skrillex collaboration “Face My Fears” as the ill-advised throwaway that it is, and there’s a certain amount of shape to that progression, promise even. Give it a second pass, read up that Floating Points had a hand in the bookend tracks and the slowburning midway highlight “Not In The Mood” as a producer, and suddenly you’re looking at an eyebrow-raiser beyond the typical brief of a new Utada record.
However, the simple number of tentative reinventions here speaks louder than the depth of any given one; I’ve read a generous amount of how Bad Mode
supposedly redefines them as an artist, but it’s a struggle to view it beyond a set of new ways to lay down established strengths. Take the sparser approach that blurs an air of vulnerability over “Not In The Mood”; while welcome, it’s the kind of thing you could play alongside, say, Fantome
’s moodier cuts and barely notice the difference. The title-track and “Dare ni mo iwanai”’s flirtations with sophistipop arrangements are a similar story. Of the more drastic departures, the closer “Somewhere Near Marseilles” almost lives up to its mammoth brief, but it’s Floating Points’ excursion more than Utada’s and, true to form, his impressive production chops lack the ideas to see off such a lengthy runtime with the scale it deserves. “Find Love”, however, is a dance-pop banger par excellence
, carried by strong melodies and a more energetic vocal performance to the effect that it weathers a surprise trap breakdown that spans its entire final minute, emerging as a surprise album highlight. Once again ignoring “Face My Fears”, it’s the only track that feels different right down to its DNA; more of this, please.
Beyond its contemporary production, the most striking part of this album is its bilingualism both within and between individual tracks, a career first for Utada who previously confined their English-language material to their US-exported alias UTADA and kept her domestic output as Utada Hikaru almost entirely in Japanese. UTADA’s party-ready persona was a bemusingly poor match for the refinement and composure associated with Utada Hikaru, but it’s mercifully done away with here in favour of a somewhat
more nuanced approach that uses their English voice to explicate Japanese subtext. At points this feels off-mark – the title-track’s F-bombs are as gentle as immersion breakers come – but it comes to life rather well on certain tracks. “Dare ni mo iwanai”, for instance, unpacks the Japanese rather than learn my sins by memory / I’d prefer that you taught me yourself
quite naturally into the English boy, you know what I need / I just want your body
The implication here, which I find quite significant, is that Bad Mode
asks us in a more convincing capacity than ever before to envisage Utada Hikaru as an international star rather than anything J-pop specific. This, if anything, is its chief portent for their future, even if the sales capital of individual tracks still rests on a largely Japan-centric mix of anime, skincare advertising, gaming tie-ins, and radio exposure independent of the album release. Their domestic clout may be too rich to squander, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the small steps made by these kinds of collaborations and stylistic feints magnified across their next full-length. Bad Mode
may tease its renaissance qualities more than it fulfills any of them, but it takes a fair shot at subtly shifting Utada’s goalposts while ticking the boxes of what is, at the end of the day, just another Utada Hikaru album. The more things change…