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miwa “Delight”

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

The title of miwa’s first two releases, “Guitarissimo” and “Guitarium,” seemingly announced her musical niche. Those top-selling albums (her debut made her the first Japanese performer born in the 1990s to take the Oricon album chart’s top spot) revolved around guitar, in the form of frantic rock numbers and slow ballads. Her early work featured some strong moments, but mostly sounded derivative of other unadventurous singer-songwriter types (Superfly, Angela Aki). Given this history, it’s surprising to find miwa exiting her comfort zone on her latest full-length, “Delight.” It’s a document of a young artist figuring herself out, and one of this year’s strongest J-pop collections yet.

It isn’t a total detour into experimentation — miwa still dots “Delight” with rollicking guitar workouts, ballads of varying quality, and the kind of fodder that is sure to soundtrack high school graduation slide shows (“My Best Friend”). Now, though, she isn’t hesitant to bend structures and introduce more electronic elements. She coats the zippy “321″ in synthesizers, while she takes the string choruses normally associated with ballads and flips them into a catchy riffs on “Miracle.” She builds the title track around synth and a dance beat, her signature guitar pushed deeper into the mix.

Her best results come when she melds the sonically alien with the familiar. “Hikari e” (“To the Light”) is the album’s first single and it’s an attention-getter. The track opens with plaintive guitar strumming and waves of synth before miwa’s roboticized voice ponders, “What do you want to do / what is the meaning of life?” A dance beat begins to pulse and builds to a dramatic chorus. Even better is “Sparrow,” the one moment on “Delight” where miwa confronts her artistic decisions. “What could I share locked in a cage?” she sings, the music around her a mix of guitar, synths and Auto-Tune tumbling over one another. I think “Sparrow” was a test to see whether fans would take flight after hearing her branch out into other directions. The fans didn’t — “Delight” has moved more than 95,000 units to date — and this could encourage the young singer to chase her newfound muse.