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Day 30: Ayumi Hamasaki – “FIVE” (2011)
Genre: Pop / R’n’B
You guys were pretty clear: more Ayumi reviews! So I figured why no go for one of her releases that’s often overlooked, even though it’s recent. FIVE is an EP Ayumi released in 2011. After experimenting with interesting arrangement choices in 2010, FIVE went back to the basics, creating a radio-friendly, R’n’B-tinted sound that was generally well-received, but left some of her fanbase disappointed.
FIVE is very obviously a crusade to gain the general public’s liking again after years of disappointing sales, and you can tell from the very first song. progress was the opening track for Tales of Xillia and as such may just be Ayumi’s most famous song outside of Asia. It’s fitting for the honour, opening on a gentle piano and spending the first chorus as very, very high-pitched ballad before exploding into aggressive strings-driven rock. The song is powerful and charged, with a gorgeous arrangement and beautiful melody, however, the production leaves things to be desired, particularly in the opening with a thin, sharp piano sound and Ayumi’s vocal performance is less than ideal, straining through the higher sections.
In 13 years, Ayumi had never released a collaboration on any of her singles or albums. Sure, she collaborated with people, but always as split single or by featuring on their songs, never by having them feature on hers. Yet on FIVE, you find not one, but two collaborations – in a row. First off, there’s Another Song, featuring Urata Naoya of AAA. It’s a gorgeous, simplistic R’n’B midtempo with a tight arrangement and continuous drive, supported by a repetition-heavy composition rooted in Hip-Hop. The curious decision to go higher not once, but twice in the final chorus should be a red flag for lazy composing, but works awfully well with the direction the song was going all along. I can’t say I enjoy hearing Naoya’s overbearing vocals drown out Ayumi though, he seems to be emulating superior vocalists, putting too much force into it, while Ayumi delivers gentle, expressive lines.
The second collaboration, Why…, features JUNO (it’s ok if you have no idea who this is, he’s the brother of a hasbeen boygroup member) and, while retaining a R’n’B drive, is more deeply concerned with being a rather typical J-Ballad. There’s a dramatic aura around the song that makes it worthwhile, but in general it’s rather by the books. Ayumi needs to choose her vocal collaborators better, JUNO’s vocal performance isn’t bad, but fails to play off Ayumi and is almost as overbearing at times as Naoya’s.
You just know beloved exists because ballads sell like hotcakes, but hey, that doesn’t make it bad! While the melody and arrangement are rather basic pop ballads, beloved is well-produced and beautifully performed. With soft, mellow, unstrained vocals to go with the gorgeous string backing. The song doesn’t stand out, it isn’t memorable – but it’s a very, very nice listen.
Exquisitely arranged and produced synths and chants give way to what may just be Ayumi’s grandest, most enveloping song. BRILLANTE is an absolute masterpiece, carrying immense tension and pure, untainted beauty through its entire 6 minutes. The narrative is impeccable and grave, striking you powerfully and leaving a lasting mark as Ayumi’s distraught, dynamic vocals project painful realism over such a fantastical arrangement. Reality and facade collide and break down, leaving an intangible but deeply affecting sense of…life, really. BRILLANTE makes you both dream and weep, at the same time, incredibly universal yet intensely personal. There’s no words to describe its power.
So there you have it, FIVE is packed with great songs from beginning to end, but is it all gold? No, it isn’t. I can see why one would dislike the perceived “basic” nature of the middle of the album, I could also see how someone would be disappointed in the choice of genres and there are some patches of inferior vocals. But if you go into this EP expecting a good pop EP without thinking of Ayumi’s back catalogue, you will get out very, very pleasant experience, with a true pop masterpiece at the beginning and end. It’s short, but damn, if this isn’t sweet than I don’t know what is! I used to be indifferent to FIVE, but revisiting it now, I believe I see it for what it is. One of Ayumi’s least ambitious, but also one of Ayumi’s best releases.