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Hai Fidelity
Ayumi Hamasaki: Guilty

by Rachael Carothers,

Click below for a clip of the song "Marionette"

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Ayumi Hamasaki, also known as Ayu, has worked hard to earn her title “Empress of J-pop.” In 2006, the diva became the first female solo artist with the most number one singles. This year, she became the only Japanese female artist with consecutive number one singles every year for the past ten years. These aren't her only records either. She has also had the highest single sales as well as the most million-seller singles plus the most Top 10 singles. Released on January 1, 2008, Ayu's latest album, Guilty, was her first album that did not debut at #1 in Japan.

Guilty starts off with the fairly short song, “Mirror.” Where most of the other songs on the album are at least four minutes long, this one is barely two minutes long. However, it is this briefness might be what makes this a really good song. The song starts out with a rapid music box-type melody on top of a snare drum before adding in some string orchestration. Suddenly, it explodes into a mix of trance and pop music for little more than thirty seconds. Then it drops back for a sweet ending with Ayu's voice as the main focus point. “Mirror” shows the proper way to open a good album.

Following “Mirror” is “(don't) Leave Me Alone,” an extremely dark and heavy dance song. It should feel out of place considering the previous song ended so melodic but it doesn't. Somehow, with the drums driving the song, it just feels right. Though I do wonder if this song is about Ayu's ex-boyfriend, TOKIO member Tomoya Nagase, as their seven-year relationship ended about six months prior to this album's release.

Just as a slower, more traditional pop song should be popping up, we are instead handed “Talkin’ 2 Myself.” Another drum-intensive song, though this time the drums are performed by Andy Selway from the German industrial band KMFDM, you can feel the soul-searching emotion that goes along with the lyrics. It's almost like this is Ayu trying to find herself after breaking up with Nagase and we have been allowed into the confusion that resides inside her.

By now, it is obvious that this album will focus on the loss of her relationship. “decision” is another confused song. It starts out slow and sweet but then the guitar comes in, drops off again then picks back up. Meanwhile, Ayu's lyrics are explaining her decision to leave with lines such as ‘Someday you will understand that I'll just have to remain myself.’ There is a sadness in everything about the song yet there is a feeling of hope as well.

The title track, “Guilty,” definitely feels Guilty. A single deep-Ringing Bell tolls four times before the disapproving guitars appear. While the bell does not sound throughout the entire song, a piano replaces that droning tone. Adding the pleading vocals to all of these judging instrumentals, we can fully grasp the want to be forgiven for past sins. As a matter of fact, the lyrics even ask for forgiveness.

Finally, a third of the way into the album, we are given an uplifting song in “fated.” Here we have a woman who has just fallen in love at first sight. All of the instruments have been greatly softened to allow the vocals to really shine. This is a very welcome change of pace from all of the previous dark songs. However, it would have been nice to have this change come a song or two earlier, though it wouldn't have worked with the album's storyline.

After finally being given some happiness, the ballad “Together When…” rips is away from us. Another song with softer instrumentals, it's the lyrics that stab us right in the heart. Yes, it is another break-up song. We can hear the pain in Ayu's voice as she tells her lover that she wanted to say things to him but she just couldn't do it. There is a little bit of hope at the end though. Perhaps we'll be able to hold onto some semblance of happiness soon.

There is a short musical break, “Marionette ~prelude~,” before we move into the actual song “Marionette.” The prelude has weird almost psychotic music box sounds, complete with “turning of the key” noises and the chiming of a grandfather clock. It gives a sense of nostalgia which rolls right into the full four-and-a-half-minute “Marionette.” While the prelude was making us think of the past, the song itself forces us to stand up and face the future boldly. It acknowledges the beautiful memories of the past but it wants us to look beyond the painful memories as well.

“The Judgement Day” is basically another instrumental track, even though Ayumi ‘la-la-las’ through it. Despite the lack of words, you can feel the religious overtones. It starts out dark and unsure but gradually moves into feelings of happiness, hope and redemption. It's almost too bad that the song is under two minutes.

A truly happy song, “glitter,” comes up next. This song is so happy that it almost makes you dance around the room giddily. There is a nice Steady Beat that isn't overpowering and Ayumi genuinely sounds happy to be singing. Lyrically, she's telling us how she still believes in love and she is ready to start a new summer adventure. “Glitter” is probably the best song on the entire album.

While “My All” isn't nearly as upbeat as “glitter,” it can still stand on its own. A slightly traditional Japanese sound resonates over the entire song making it the most original song on Guilty. Even though this feels like it should be the end of the album, it's not. Another instrumental, “reBIRTH,” pops up. This was probably intended to give the end of the album a new age feel but it just feels odd. It feels like it was tacked on just to fill some time.

The final song on the album is “untitled ~for her~.” In the album's liner notes, there is a note which reads ‘This album is dedicated to a dearest person. May she rest in peace… 1976~2007.” Obviously this is the tribute song for that person, whoever she is. It is a wonderful song and a lovely way to finish the album.

I can understand why Guilty didn't sell as well as Ayu's other albums. This one is a lot darker than anything she's done before. She claims that writing the lyrics to these songs was not an emotional experience. On the contrary, I believe that this album was Ayu's way of healing her broken heart whether she wants to admit it or not. It's not a terrible album but it just doesn't feel “Ayumi-like.”

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