Utada Hikaru “Fantome” (Universal Music Japan)

Earlier this month, my colleague Ryotaro Aoki wrote that he hoped pop star Hikaru Utada’s highly anticipated return to the music scene via her album “Fantome” would “save” the Japanese music scene. But did it really need saving?

Sure, record executives must miss the days of enormous profits and can’t seem to see beyond whatever tops the Oricon charts, but if the suits would just dig a little deeper they’d find that the music scene is actually quite robust. Utada knows this, she drafted three fantastic artists to help on “Fantome” (two of whom are relative newcomers). In fact — and I know fans will hate me for the suggestion — the trio of guests might just outshine her on her own album.

The first guest is Ringo Sheena, who appears on the track “Nijikan dake no Vacance.” Sheena occupies a space similar in stature to Utada: Both women rose above their peers during the female soloist boom of the 2000s and have cemented their places in the pantheon of modern Japanese music. On “Nijikan,” however, Sheena dominates. There’s an emotional strength to her vocals that Utada doesn’t quite match — and the jazzy pop vibe brings to mind more of Sheena’s catalog than Utada’s.

Speaking of dominant voices, Utada comes off like an afterthought on “Boukyaku,” her collaboration with rising hip-hop star Kohh. The rapper’s voice is the first one you hear on the track and is the more captivating of the two. Utada’s vocals compliment Kohh’s rhymes well, but there were moments I thought I might be listening to an Utada guest spot on a Kohh track instead of the other way around. That being said, the song’s introduction presents Utada at her ethereal best, something we’ve come to love in her music.

Utada revists her R&B roots on “Tomodachi,” which features Tokyo Recordings founder Nariaki Obukuro (OBKR). Even though Obukuro only provides backing vocals on the track, his rich, soulful falsetto is a striking standout. The song is written from the perspective of a gay person falling in love with a straight friend, providing a particularly buzzed-about moment in the form of a Twitter exchange in which Utada responded to a fan’s question about co-opting the LGBT experience with, “What makes you think I’m ‘straight’?”

“Nijikan,” “Boukyaku” and “Tomodachi” are the high points on an album that sounds like it was largely made to soundtrack TV dramas (“Hanataba o Kimi Ni,” a song about Utada’s late mother, is used as the theme song to the NHK drama “Toto Nee-chan”). With all the hype surrounding the release of “Fantome,” I couldn’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. One thing’s for sure, she has an ear for talent and the scene she has returned to is filled with potential.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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