Japanese singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada dropped her highly anticipated eighth studio album, BAD MODE, on Wednesday (Jan. 19). Accompanying her latest project — which encompasses many of her recent hits such as “One Last Kiss,” “Face My Fears” and “PINK BLOOD” — is a studio concert film titled Hikaru Utada Live Sessions From Air Studios, featuring first-ever live renditions of 11 select tracks, including some off her new album.
This live review by rising music writer Tsuya-chan — who interviewed the 38-year-old superstar for a Billboard Japan feature article in June last year — delves into the session’s complex soundscape and contemplates the innovative beauty of the J-pop icon’s online studio concert from London.
I want to stay submerged in the deep, erotic contours of this sound. Has there ever been such a meltingly sweet, yet dignified series of sounds?
In conjunction with the release of her new album BAD MODE, Hikaru Utada will do something she has never done before: stream performances of 11 carefully selected tracks, including some from the new set. As the full picture of her first new album in three years and eight months — as well as the live video — is revealed, it invites various speculations. How will she reproduce the cutting-edge beats that have been already so sharpened and had unnecessary sounds eliminated to such an extreme? How much play is she going to add to her stoically minimal sounds? How will Hikaru Utada’s own voice, which forms a multi-layered structure of loops, be handled in the live performance? Is her laid-back look presented in the photos for BAD MODE an important aspect to be incorporated into the session? How much of herself does Hikaru Utada intend to share with her audiences?
As I stare eagerly at the screen, Utada and the other members of the band appeared in a relaxed mood. They are Jodi Milliner on bass, Earl Harvin on drums, Reuben James on keyboards, and Henry Bowers-Broadbent on guitar and keyboards. I guess they know each other well. Even if they do not, they are all up-and-coming musicians who are part of the British music scene. Some of the members played in Sam Smith’s livestream in October 2020 and left strong impressions on those who watched the show. That performance was in Abbey Road Studios, while this one was from Air Studios, best known for its main hall, Lyndhurst Hall, a converted church. This time, Utada’s recording was done at the more compact Studio 1.
First, I would like to compliment the space of studio 1. The window glass reflects the people inside the studio as well as instruments.
The film director, David Barnard, actively captures the reflections of people and instruments on the glass to show the fluctuation of Hikaru Utada’s pop music, which is open to the masses, but at the same time, she has been playing bedroom music with a restrained mood.
Mirrors played an important role in the music video for “PINK BLOOD” released last year as well. Utada has affirmed the many facets that emerge from the various layers and has started to expose them to fans. While the meaning of lyrics shouldn’t easily be linked with the artists themselves, if we were to connect the two in this instance, we can infer that taboos no longer exist for the artist who sang, “I don’t need to show it to anyone/ For something beautiful to be beautiful/ I already know it is” and “To hell with sitting on a throne/ Only a chair I’ve chosen for myself will do” in “PINK BLOOD.” Although environmental factors caused by the pandemic gave rise to the livestream performance, the hermetic, kaleidoscopic visual production perfectly matches Utada’s recent “mode” — allowing listeners to pick up on her natural attitude as permission to head deeper into her works and confront them.
The livestream started off with the album’s title track, “BAD MODE.” The music immediately goes against our expectation of what “bad” means in its simplest sense. The laid-back performance of the extremely descriptive lyrics adds another layer of meaning to the song, which might be described as “positive bad” — painful because it’s love. The swaying instruments create an airy groove. Soweto Kinch’s saxophone is particularly impressive. As soon as the song ends, Utada glances over at him and smiles — the kind of smile that hides a hint of shyness when things are going well. The vibes feel right and the air is full of joy.
Then we hear the intro of “One Last Kiss” — that tranquil, yet maddeningly luscious sound that fills our ears. Ruth O’Mahony Brady is playing the keyboards, her deep blue nails hitting the keys of the phrase, and I am surprised to find that most of the sounds in the lyrics of this song are able to be reproduced by instruments — more so than I’d imagined. Toward the end of the tune, Utada alternates between rhythm vocals (“oh oh oh oh oh oh…”) and melody vocals (“wasurerarenai hito,” meaning “unforgettable person”), and eventually begins to play a keyboard herself to join in the multi-layered groove. The KOMPLETE KONTROL A25 moves as Utada’s fingers dance across the keyboard. An immersive aura envelops the entire studio. Tremendous! I’m witness to “One Last Kiss” being produced anew through the dynamism of a live performance.
Air Studios is often used by artists to go for an ethereal, epic finish to their music, and while the space is ideal for creating that kind of grandiose sound, Utada’s performance has a much sharper and more modern flavor to it. My guess is that the reason why her live rendition of club-music-inspired music sounds so elegant and dynamic owes a lot to the skill of the band members and sound engineer Steve Fitzmaurice, as well as the technological capability of the studio itself.
The “alive” sound is further emphasized in the next song, “Kimini Muchuu” (crazy about you). The abundant, sultry bass sounds typical of A.G. Cook-produced tracks providing a feeling of abnormality to the live performance, and Utada meticulously adds her vocals to what must be an extremely difficult rhythm to maintain. At the same time, Will Fry’s percussion takes my breath away. His performance reveals how those sounds are made and invites viewers into what feels like a spiraling maze-like structure of sound. The same goes for the next two tracks, “Darenimo Iwanai” (I won’t tell anyone) and “Find Love,” where percussive rhythms and electronic sounds are fused together in an extremely organic way. Especially in “Find Love,” the crisp, disciplined drumming tightens up the band’s performance, and the reverberations in the gaps between the relatively sparse notes create an elegant sense of pleasure. It’s the most effective use of the structure of Utada’s recent songs featuring fewer notes. The band members appear quite satisfied after the performance and gesture “OK!”
The tribal-flavored percussions are one of the main features of the show, and the tracks “Hotel Lobby” and “About Me,” which are credited to Utada, may have been selected for this aspect. But this isn’t just about highlighting these songs from a “world music” perspective. While the studio recordings are being faithfully reproduced in this live performance, it sounds like careful attention is being directed to how to make the tone sounds and how to make them resonate — the contribution of percussion is significant in this sense. The same goes for songs like “Time,” “Face My Fears” and “Beautiful World.”
The highlight of the livestream may be “PINK BLOOD.” After repeating the title at the outset with a new feel, Utada goes back and forth between rhythm vocals and melody vocals to set the song’s trajectory. She connects her pitch with facial expressions seen for the first time, as if to wring something out, looking somewhat pained, yet also majestic.
I recall the oft-mentioned quote by the artist: “I consider the melody itself as a rhythm.” She’s creating another trajectory through song, another order that runs against the main rhythm. Throughout the entire set, I’m impressed by the way she expresses her flow as if to generate rhythm from beginning to end.
The creation of rhythm is an act of listening to one’s inner cadence, catching the various emotions that spring forth, returning them to the body. So this live performance could be said to be a period of time when we were allowed into her forbidden, profound realm. Now, free of constraints, Hikaru Utada has entered a new mode. This show was a historic moment when we were finally allowed to step into a zone we’d never seen before.
This article by Tsuya-chan first appeared on Billboard Japan.