ew artists looking to crossover into new territory put it as blatantly as Utada does at the beginning of her new disc "Exodus." On the opening track, appropriately enough titled "Opening," Utada declares, "I just wanna crossover, cross the line / I just wanna go further/ Between here and there, grow wiser." It's a bold statement made by someone who the most part of her young life has been a key mechanism in the J-Pop machine. Of all the pop industries out there, it’s the Japanese that asks the most of its artists, demanding nothing short of perfection from its usually very green members, but also offering them very little, in the way of any kind of creative input. In Japan, pop artists are a product in every sense of the word.
Now aged 22, Utada has been one of Japan’s biggest stars for almost a decade, with sale figures that would intimidate even the likes of U2 and Robbie Williams. With her new album though, Utada clearly has her eye on another prize entirely, but refreshingly this isn't simply a safe attempt to emulate western artists and boast international sales. Exodus is in fact something far stranger, and ultimately more fascinating—Utada's attempt to escape the J-Pop machine and establish herself as more than just a product.
By general pop standards, let alone the sugary "so sweet it hurts" ache of J-Pop standards, Exodus is a pretty damn strange. "Hotel Lobby" focuses on the sad plight of an aging prostitute, and the frankly insane "The Workout", which, with its colossal drums and horn parts comes on as the demented twin sister to Gewn Stefani's "Hollaback Girl,” with lyrics in which Utada talks to a born-again Christian about the tomb of Tutankhamen and teaching "dirty blond Texans" how people in the far east get down.
A well as being a bit mad, it's also as dark as pop music is ever permitted to be. "Devil Inside,” the first proper song on the album, sounds ominous from the start with its rumbling downbeat drum machines, and drawn out moody synth lines, that bizarrely enough reminded me of the music you would hear when you had to beat Bowzer at the end of the Super Mario games. When the vocals come in, Utada enhances this sense of dread as she sings, "Everybody wants me to be their angel/ They don’t I know I burn/ Maybe there's a devil or something like it inside of me." Of course the whole "you think you know me, but you don’t know me at all" schtick has been done many times before by popstars looking to keep it real, but with Utada, helped by the fact that she solely wrote almost the entire album, you believe her pleas for independence.
The darkness doesn't let up over the rest of the record. “Kremlin Dusk” is a bizarre neo-industrial symphony that quotes Edgar Allen Poe no less, whilst “Animato” with its synthesized mournful choirs and oppressive alien electronics, pushes pop to its most avant garde extremes. On occasion though, some light flutters through. “Easy Breezy” is a beautifully playful sheer pop, boasting one of the dreamiest choruses on the record as long as you can get past the "You're easy breezy and I'm Japaneezy" lyrics. For fans of Utada's previous work, this is the song that will probably prove to be a rather welcome addition to an album that may have otherwise left them feeling a little disorientated.
If there are flaws in the record, Utada's voice is at times a tad too stage school clean. Also Timbaland’s much hyped contributions (yes, THAT Timbaland) are decidedly unimpressive. “Exodus 04” has lilting string samples and piano, and “Let Me Give You My Love” is the kind of squelchy future funk you would have found on an Aaliyah B-side. Sonically, producer Terazane skinng U, who takes on the rest of the album duties, blows Timbaland out of the water.
So there you have it. It’s not a pop masterpiece but it’s a decidedly good record. Few J-Pop artists ever attempt to make such a bold and risky record, but with Exodus, Utada has established herself as an individual who can proudly stand aside from the rest of the identikit J-Pop idols. Hopefully she'll keep on getting better, but even if she falls into the machine, she will always have Exodus, and that’s enough.
Reviewed by: Rob Carolan
Reviewed on: 2006-01-09