Day 34: Utada Hikaru – “Deep River” Review

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Day 34: Utada Hikaru – “Deep River” (2002)


Genre: Pop / R’n’B

She’s on a ridiculously extended leave right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy her old music! Utada Hikaru is what, until a few years ago, your average western person was thinking of when you mentioned J-Pop. And she was good publicity! Deep River was the first exposure to the Japanese music world for many people and today, I’m going to relive that album experience.

A drumroll is oddly fitting as entrance to this album, with SAKURAドロップス employing an expressive array of sounds. The song uses a wide variety of instruments, from synth drums over strings and traditional Asian instruments to vocal samples, and effective vocal work to create a pulsing atmosphere. It feels alive, as if it were breathing – few songs achieve quite as much as SAKURAドロップス does.

If you’ve been looking for a really, really odd song about sex, fear not! traveling is here to fill that desire! It’s charming, cute and fun, with just a hint of the naughty and playful in the delivery. Hearing a vaguely Engrish pronunciation of “endless libido” in the middle of such an upbeat, cheerful song? It’s plain gold.

The transition into an oddly low-key ballad, build predominantly around simple, yet layered, piano melodies in the form of 幸せになろう seems odd – until you get to the chorus, the production fills up and turns into a typical R’n’B track of the time. It’s a good song that never gets too bland on the arrangement side, however, I would have liked to hear this performed as a ballad as the stylistic jumps feel a bit too rough to me.

Utada is one of those people whose music ranges between “good” and “oh my god I have just looked into all of time and space and found the best thing there is”, Deep River? The latter. So much. It’s a gorgeously arranged ballad, simple, with a clear production and a melody that is just so very powerful. It hits hard and deep, never to truly let you go. One of the greatest pop ballads ever composed.

It’s nice to hear some of the soulful, organic R’n’B of the early 00s again. You know, before electronic beats took over everything. Letters is relaxed, yet has drive, very much an improved version of 幸せになろう with a catchy, latin-flavoured chorus. The acoustic nature works surprisingly well at making it fun and dancey. Or rather, as dancey as a midtempo gets.

Sticking to a similar style, プレイ・ボール is more relaxed and downtempo, with more of an emphasis on the bass. I’m not all that fond of the chorus, it’s pretty, but feels a bit underdeveloped – like it’s going nowhere.

The fantastic thing about 東京 NIGHTS is just how aggressive the heavily punctuated arrangement is. Delivering bursts of continuous energy throughout this track, while Utada’s vocals are confidently taking center stage without being drowned out. It’s the best out of this record’s middle section. The harpsichord-backed bridge particularly stands out.

ASAP is equally aggressive, with a lot of attitude to back it. It doesn’t quite live up to the prior track, but is great on its own terms. I do like how filled out the production is, it’s not too timbre-heavy, however, Utada fails to project the higher headvoice sections towards the end properly.

An excursion into Rock is unexpected, but welcome. 嘘みたいなI Love You takes the same charged nature of the two prior tracks and applies it to another genre, however, I feel like the attempt is a bit half-assed. 嘘みたいなI Love You goes out of its way to be produced as a very safe track – in stark contrast to the attitude in the vocals and composition. And it just doesn’t work, it takes from the power.

FINAL DISTANCE is in direct competition with Deep River for the title of prettiest ballad on the album. I personally prefer Deep River because it feels less melodramatic, but in the end both songs are completely and utterly stunning.

I’m not sure the inclusion of Bridge (Interlude) was all that necessary. I have no thoughts on it one way or the other.

The album finale, , skyrocketed to global fame upon being included in Kingdom Hearts. I never really got the appeal, for the it is by far the weakest, least interesting song on the album.  is annoying, thinly produced and just a bit bland.

I would be calling Deep River a masterpiece right now if it didn’t include 幸せになろうプレイ・ボール and , but even with those less than ideal tracks mixed in, the great moments of Deep River can outshine most other singers’ best material. Easily. Deep River isn’t Utada’s best, most well-composed album – but damn, it’s close!

Rating: 4/5


One thought on “Day 34: Utada Hikaru – “Deep River” Review

  1. Nice review! Even so , I do not agree with some choices : I love 幸せになろうand Letters (sometimes it becomes annoying) but I do not like travelling. I always found it too bland. Hikari is ok and Sakura Drops is even better especially the arrangement but god, her voice can become annoying at times in this song (again_). The rest of the songs are good. One of her best albums but I can’t call this a masterpiece.

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