Hikaru Utada: Heart Station
by Rachael Carothers,
Click below for a clip of the song "Boku wa Kuma"
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The Square Enix Kingdom Hearts video game series shot Hikaru Utada, also known as Hikki, to international fame. On March 19, 2008, the pop sensation released her latest studio album titled Heart Station. Afterwards, it hit a variety of countries, including Canada and the United States, throughout March and April. This album marks Hikki's sixth straight number one album.
“Fight The Blues,” a cute little pop ditty, opens the album. Synthesizers give it an almost ‘80s sound but the verses manage to pull it back into something a bit more modern. In the lyrics, Hikki talks about how everyone gets depressed sometimes but we all have to be strong and fight our sadness. Somehow, the toned-down vibe of the song matches this emotion perfectly. It's not too cheery, which would make the song seem trite, and it's not too dark either, which would make the song itself depressing. This is an interesting song to use as the first track since it doesn't really pump you up for the rest of it.
Used as the 2008 commercial song for the cell phone music website Recochoku, the album's title song is the second track. “Heart Station” gives us a nice, laid-back love ballad. However, the song is more about the feelings of missing a lover after separating than the actual emotion of love. The background music is mellow, lending to the melancholy tone of the lyrics.
While “Beautiful World” is a little faster paced than the previous tracks, it still isn't particularly danceable. Perhaps this is a good thing since it is the theme song to the first of four movies retelling the story of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Overall, the song is a perfect match to the Evangelion universe. It talks of everything that Shinji experiences internally throughout the series – wanting something but not knowing exactly what while loving someone but not being able to tell that person how you feel. Even the gentle sounds in the background help push these feelings through to the listener.
The first version of “Flavor of Life” that we are introduced to is the ballad version, which appeared as an insert song in the second season of the live action drama, Hana Yori Dango. For anyone familiar with the story, this song was the perfect choice for the drama as it describes a confusing relationship that is painful to both parties. It's not a relationship that can be easily ended though. This is a couple destined to be together, despite all of the outside forces trying to keep them apart. The ballad version of the song is so amazingly beautiful that it just about brings tears to your eyes as you listen to it. It's no wonder that it is so popular.
A hypnotic piano hook drags us into “Stay Gold.” Sadly, aside from the piano that forces you to like it despite the repetition, the song just isn't all that interesting. Hikki's breathless vocals aren't enough to keep anyone from switching songs. Sure, we might get sucked in by those repeating piano notes but there isn't anything to keep us around unless, of course, you're simply waiting to see if the piano line will change at some point. I'll save you the trouble and give you the answer: not really.
In case you didn't know that “Kiss & Cry” was the commercial song for Nissin Cup Noodles, the song will not-so-gently remind you in the lyrics. This song is so confusing. It talks about loving the bass drum and cymbals but then buries those sounds under a keyboard synthesizer. There are some random lines about some typical family problems and the product placement. Meanwhile, the rest of the lyrics talk about wanting to be emotionally closer to someone. The beat would be nice if the rest of the song wasn't trying too hard to be something to everyone. It's a shame since it is a rather catchy tune.
“Gentle Beast Interlude” is a mostly instrumental piece. There are oohs and other sorts of vocal sounds in there but no actual words. Underneath the sort-of-vocals, there is a great beat. Unfortunately, nothing is done with it. In a way, the song reminds me of the type of song you would hear during the ‘high hippies’ montage in a bad movie from the ‘90s. Why is this on the album? If it was supposed to transition us to the more danceable songs, it wasn't done very well.
That funky beat from “Beast” flows into “Celebrate” to find a wonderful home. If this was any other singer, you'd expect some sort of rap or R&B vocals. Instead, Hikki gives us some very fitting gentle yet inspirational vocals. In the end, the song is a pretty love song that you can still dance to. Not too many singers would be able to pull this off.
Another song with a hip-hop sort of beat, “Prisoner of Love” tells the story of someone who opened their heart to another person and was rewarded with a truly pure love. Unfortunately, the vocals here are rather bland. There are a couple of decent lines in the chorus but the verses are simply boring. Perhaps this is supposed to convey the feeling of being trapped. Sadly, that emotion doesn't come through very well.
It seems like the second half of this album is going to be filled with songs that are more than a ballad but not quite a traditional pop song. “Teiku 5” (“Take 5”) keeps up with the almost-but-not-quite-danceable synthesized back-beat while Hikki tops it with some breathless vocals. While the song is very pretty, there isn't a lot to differentiate it from the previous songs.
Surprisingly, the most interesting song here is a children's song called “Boku wa Kuma” (“I'm a bear”). The quiet piano with the infectiously repetitious lyrics make this a ton of fun. Considering this is Hikki's first foray into children's music, it's rather impressive. Most singers try to dumb down songs intended for children. Hikki, however, simply wrote about her stuffed bear called Kuma-chan. If she released an entire album of songs similar to this, it would definitely be a hit.
Finally, the last song on the album, “Niji-iro Basu” (“Rainbow Colored Bus”), shows us that Hikki can, in fact, sing more than just ballads. It's not quite as “perky” as typical pop songs are but it is more upbeat than the rest of the album. The lyrics of the song could be interpreted a couple of different ways. They could be talking about how, at some point in their life, everyone thinks that if they took a bus ‘to a place beyond the rainbow,’ they will actually find happiness. Another interpretation is that everyone works as hard as they can to get through their difficult lives but their outlook on life changes completely when they see a happy rainbow in the blue sky. Either way, this was a great way to end the album.
Ah, but it is not the end! As a bonus, the full pop version of “Flavor of Life” is tacked on. Where the ballad song is sweet and full of feelings of love, this version is the typical pop song that we've been waiting for. All of the various instruments come together beautifully with Hikki's voice. Despite my affection for the ballad version, I think that this version is better. It feels more complete than the previous one.
As a whole, Heart Station isn't a bad album. However, Hikki is an amazing singer and it would have been nice to have more songs where she really showed her talents. Most of the songs here are filled with breathless vocals instead of giving us some of the hard-hitting vocals that we all know is within her capability. Hopefully Hikki will break out of her ballad-filled repertoire and give us some stunning songs with actual substance.
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