Hikaru Utada’s eighth album, BAD MODE, was met with a lot of praise upon its digital release on January 19th. The CD version will be out on February 23rd. About a month after the digital release, we asked up-and-coming writer Tsuya-chan to write about Utada’s masterpiece.
Controlled number of sounds and a rich timbre
I’m finally able to take a step back and respond to BAD MODE.
We might’ve underestimated the album, as it only includes three brand new songs. But the ending of “Kibunja Naino (Not In The Mood)” leads into “Darenimo Iwanai,” making it sound different. The snares of “PINK BLOOD” sound even fiercer when it follows the gently trembling rhythm of “One Last Kiss.” The album’s a work of magic that makes the ten songs feel new and vivid, even though I’ve listened to the songs previously.
Does “Face My Fears (Japanese Version)” stick out that much? The booming, heavy bass sound at the end of “Find Love” acts as a foreshadow, and it violently bursts into “Face My Fears,” which feels like the perfect transition to the album’s climax. Moreover, I’m surprised by the ambiguous, blurry measures that run through the album. The stuttering snares in “Time” threaten to break down borders. The piano riffs in “Kimini Muchuu” are like a dizzying vortex sucking us in. Another trait is how said swirling vortex doesn’t feel restricted but rather an elegant reverberation. The ambient tone of the album seems like a rotating film stock for the film (or soundtrack) that is the album. Every time I listen to BAD MODE, I dream of how everything turns into a gradation of sorts. It makes me wish all the walls that separate us would fade away as we sway in the space of melted ambient sounds.
I have one conclusive remark to make. What shocked me the most about this album was how Utada could create such a rich and lush universe with a controlled number of sounds. Minimalist compositions have been a prominent feature in their recent music, and they’ve successfully utilized strings and live band sounds to dress up the music in a dazzling way. However, this album has a different type of glamor. Rather than being dressed up, I would say BAD MODE is clothed. Perhaps this stems from the richness of timbre and nuance. They cut down on excessive sounds to leave an ample amount of space. The distance between each sound creates a wide array of sounds and textures. When I listen to “One Last Kiss,” I feel astonished at how a mere synthesizer can create a dynamic and glamorous vibe within a simple composition. In “BAD MODE” and “Kibunja Naino (Not In The Mood),” the lyrics are realistic and include common proper nouns of a particular kind, yet they have an overwhelmingly refined glamor to them. The same goes for the percussions on “Darenimo Iwanai” and the electronic sound of “Find Love.” How in the world does Utada manage to discover such remarkable sounds?
Speaking of which, their choked-up voice at the end of “Pink Blood,” which I enjoy listening to repeatedly, as well as the bonus track “Beautiful World (Da Capo Version),” contributes to the overall sonic colorfulness. I’m not sure if the vocals are edited or if they’re using their nasal voice, but even if it’s the latter, the right to enjoy this occurrence should be protected, since Utada said, “At times, interesting things are born from coincidence.” Their voice is choked-up and almost wet-like, giving the song a rough and languorous flair. It reflects the relaxed nature of the cover art, in which they’re wearing casual clothes, and is one of the many brilliant tones in this diverse album.
Not glamor or richness, but a different kind of pathos
Good music never allows its interpretation to be limited to the category of music. This album, in which they wrote most of the songs in the pandemic, suggests something to us.
During modern times, we’ve created culture by meeting and interacting with other people. Even after the proliferation of the internet, the shape of communication hasn’t changed. Just like the connection of dots, we’ve made new things by interacting with and stimulating others and making discoveries. One of the ultimate glamorous experiences is traveling. But now that we need to live alongside the pandemic, and the designer who explored modern travel without boundaries has passed away, we’ve lost a very emotional and glamorous experience. We can’t even see people anymore. So, then, how should we create culture? Many people don’t know.
The pandemic strongly influenced BAD MODE. Utada’s music has always sounded personal while retaining its pop sound, and this album seems to be fueled by a sense of acceptance that surpasses introspection. The evident elements of electronic music embody this. But Utada locked themselves inside their house, engaged in their musical equipment, looked for every possible timbre, and built a universe of atmospheric yet glamorous music without boundaries. I still regard this as something groundbreaking. This album points to a new direction during an era where we’ve reached a significant cultural turning point. Now that I’ve written this column thus far, I’m starting to think that glamorous isn’t an apt descriptor. It’s not flashy enough to be that. Rich isn’t the right word either. At this point, the appropriate way to describe BAD MODE doesn’t exist, at least not in Japanese. That’s what it means to create a new kind of pathos. It’s not glamorous or rich; if I had to say, I could only describe the album as elegant and meaningful. Utada’s birthing something new. Today, as soon as there’s new music, people immediately translate that into words, but I feel a sense of freshness from Utada, as though they’re rejecting the substitution of language.
In other words, the era in which culture’s made by people passing, meeting, and stimulating each other is over. We’re now living in an era where people create their own occurrences. You can live a luxurious life by opening up your senses, even if you stay at home. BAD MODE suggests a new kind of luxury for a new time. You don’t have to travel anywhere. To be luxurious is to be at home, engage in something, welcome coincidences, open up your senses, and ponder without limits.
BAD MODE’s a step away from J-pop. The album doesn’t have any melodies and patterns typical to J-pop. They’ve “forgotten” how to belt out a song. Instead, their vocals carry rhythm and nuance. Simultaneously, J-pop’s being rapidly deconstructed in Japan, differently from the approach Utada tried out in the UK. The landscape of Japanese pop music has changed drastically, especially in the last couple of years. The new mainstream music scene is being led by bands and musicians who have their musical roots in genres like jazz and metal but reconstruct them, at times maniacal and at other times pop-like. Idol music, used in many reality shows, is still predominant. At the same time, the younger generation now supports influences that existed in the underground for a long time; they’re regarded as classics. Vocaloid music today has a faster BPM, an attempt to create a rhythm with its fast-paced score. Hip-hop and rap music groups incorporate Japanese and English words into their flows without rules. It’s different from the J-pop of the past, as this is real, grounded music.
Yes, it’s real indeed. Far away from J-pop music of the past, in which people sang high-pitched songs with peaks and valleys with a certain kind of pretense and image, real music has begun to gain new support. It’s because it reflects reality that contemporary Japanese music feels somewhat close. Japan’s rapidly becoming poorer, so it’s real in this sense too. I’m proud of Japanese pop today, as it’s filled with brilliant, down-to-earth music rather than music solely for entertainment or showbiz.
Of course, I’m not saying I’m not interested in music in neighboring countries or the US or UK. Japanese pop music isn’t competing—or can’t compete—in that department, as many musicians abroad have obtained both popularity and artistry on an immense scale. In that sense, there’s no such thing as “glamorous” music in Japan anymore. Isn’t BAD MODE an album that’s taken an approach that’s different from such opposites? The album shifted the standard of luxury to a qualitative one, where luxury’s not measured in terms of whether something’s extravagant or not. As such, it’s not the same thing as being glamorous or rich.
Traveling, and the end of the pandemic
Finally, I must talk about this song: “Somewhere Near Marseilles.” Scarily, this song’s about traveling. It’s about Utada leaving their home at the very end to book a room with an ocean view, and it’s in the service of how it sounds sonically, with both English and Japanese words being used. But why meet up in Marseilles, when Utada’s in London? Why is the other person in Paris, anyway? Because they use words as a series of sounds, I consider these lyrics as fiction and a pure form of sound.
In their previous album, Hatsukoi, they sang about love (ai). In the song “Anata,” the word ai was used repeatedly. It must’ve been a critical attempt to move away from the straightforward love song formula and to open up endless imaginative possibilities from the sound of ai. In “Somewhere Near Marseilles,” the phonetic universe of ai progresses more. Paris is ai. Through their American pronunciation, they connect to the context of the Japanese word ai. In the line, “Bokuwa London, kimiwa Paris (I’m in London, you’re in Paris)/Kono natsu gouryuu shitaine (I want to meet up with you this summer)/Ikiyasui tokoga iine (Somewhere easy to go to)/Marseilles atari (Near Marseilles)/Somewhere near Marseilles,” the sound of ai is in Paris, shitaine, and atari.
The one thing that I can’t help but wonder about is the sound of the subtle “se” between the ai sounds in Marseilles. The fricative “se” sound, pronounced quietly, has an undeniably erotic ring to it. The rubbing of something against something else is reminiscent of people meeting and creating something. The line “In the twilight/In the sunshine” follows, which creates friction and a poignant feeling through the word sunshine. Finally, they venture on a trip to a room with an ocean view. Here, Utada rhymes ocean view with yoyaku (reservation), which has a double meaning, as it can be interpreted as the word finally (youyaku). They effortlessly signal the end of the long pandemic. The new concept of luxury isn’t glamorous and rich, as it’s elegant and meaningful. And so, the long, long story that challenges our pathos comes to a close.
I’ve had many conversations with people about BAD MODE since its release. Utada’s album carved out a new pathos through pop music, and now the world is trying to catch up with their language. Perhaps, it’ll take some time. Some avid listeners told me that it seems a bit out of reach and that they can’t process it until they hear it live. I’m eagerly waiting for the day I can experience this album in a live setting. Until then, I’ll try to rely on my sensibilities and Utada’s music and live each day to the fullest, with luxury.