The age of the J-pop diva has long passed, those halcyon days of Whitney Houston-inspired vocals and million-unit-moving singles. The female entertainers from this period have recently coped by embracing American trends. Kumi Koda struck Oricon Single Chart gold last year with “Go To the Top,” which featured elements of contemporary stateside electronic dance music (EDM). Ayumi Hamasaki’s last release featured bass-heavy dubstep remixes of her tracks. And now comes Namie Amuro’s 11th full-length album, “Feel,” finding the Okinawa-born belter submerging herself in trendy electronics. Listening to it, you have to wonder what Amuro — and her contemporaries — are trying to do with this approach. Is it a bid for late-stage American success? Or just a new look for the Japanese market?
Glancing at the album insert, “Feel” reads like a calculated stab at Western sensibilities. More than half of the tracks here are sung in English. Many of the producers behind these songs aren’t Japanese, highlighted by recent Lady Gaga producer Zedd contributing the EDM-by-numbers of “Heaven.” And nearly every track indulges in electronic trends, sometimes besting the American competition. Opener “Alive” captures the rising drama of current-day EDM without the headache-inducing bass drop, while “Rainbow” cops the hop-scotch vocal delivery of Icona Pop’s hit song “I Love It” and couples it with a tasteful bit of bass freakout.
Had Amuro and her team focused on perfecting this sound, “Feel” would match up to any Western electro-pop album from 2013. Unfortunately it doesn’t, and the inconsistency makes for a frustrating listen. For every confidence-brimming number like “Big Boys Cry” or “La La La,” there are lifeless in-the-club tracks like “Hands On Me” and “Poison.” There is also a momentum slaughtering ballad in the form of “Let Me Let You Go.” Amuro told Billboard Japan in advance of her last album (featuring her first foray into all-English tunes) that she didn’t have foreign audiences in mind, but rather the songs just sounded “better” in English. This refusal to really get ambitious holds “Feel” back from being great … and is a surefire way to stymie any late-career transformation. (Patrick St. Michel)