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Day 40: Ayumi Hamasaki – “(miss)understood” (2006)
Genre: Pop / Rock / R’n’B
Tracklist: Bold & Delicious / STEP you / Ladies Night / is this LOVE? / (miss)understood / alterna / In The Corner / tasking / criminal / Pride / Will / HEAVEN / Are You Wake Up? / fairyland / Beautiful Day / rainy day
I always come back to Ayumi. Every single time. Yet there seems to be a lack of truly great albums in her extensive discography. One album that may be able to crack the “fantastic” line – (miss)understood.
The album is set to take you by surprise, opening on a gospel choir essentially screaming at you in which may just be one of the weirdest lead singles a pop singer has released – Bold & Delicious. A soulful, blues-influenced and choir-backed pop anthem, it delivers on all accords. Catchy, memorable, expertly arranged without ever overshadowing the melody. The melody seems like it was meant for a stronger vocalist, but Ayumi belts through it with odd ease, even if a bit thin at times.
When you first hear it, it’s easy to take STEP you for a generic late 00s cutesy dancepop hybrid. And in a way, it is – however, the production is intricate, full of background melodies that deserve more attention than the actual foreground. The song is deceiving in a way, asking you to look deeper while seeming just so superficial musically at first. Once you realize that STEP you has been released in the middle of 2005, it gets even more interesting: Madonna’s Confessions album wasn’t out yet, the 70s disco pop revival hadn’t begun yet! Ayumi managed to accurately predict world music trends and add an interesting depth to them.
Ayumi likes to one-up herself, taking the layered, detailed production one step further with Ladies Night, a House/Europop mix that impresses with its playful yet grave nature. It’s a fantastic, memorable track – that can be really haunting in the weirdest moments.
I rarely say no to an all-out rock explosion in the middle of a pop album – and is this LOVE? is no exception to that rule. It treats the Rock genre respectfully, not attempting to weaken the production with too many pop elements or too much compression – and it’s just altogether a great track. Desperate, aggressive, close to life, but always with a certain magic and grandeur about it. I just wish Ayumi’s vocals were more controlled and powerful, they sometimes cut off quite early as she can’t hold the belts.
The title track of the album is very much a more restrained version of the prior song, delivering more tangible emotion and more focus on dynamics. I seem to be rather alone in considering (miss)understood superior to is this LOVE?, but the song simply always spoke to me more. is this LOVE? is fun, but (miss)understood is fun and deeply affecting.
alterna moves just the tiniest bit into an alternative direction, adding synth brass and vocal filters to the Rock formula. Very, very successfully. It’s a song that perfectly illustrates the lyrics: an appeal to embrace change…or get lost. The chorus is fierce and fiery, but retains a feeling of seclusion, almost as if it belonged into a Shoegaze song. The determination of this song can’t be affected, it’s firmly in place, never to move.
This album loves rough genre changes that still flow oddly well, throwing us right into a bass-heavy R’n’B midtempo. In The Corner is gracious attitude lovingly packaged and given one hell of an arrangement, letting individual instruments shine throughout the song. It’s delicate, dynamic and somehow danceable.
tasking, the first interlude on the album, does a good job at bridging the urban ambitions of In The Corner with the dramatic balladry of the follow-up tracks. It’s an interesting interlude, mashing together genres rather than just flowing.
A patch of multiple consecutive ballads on a Japanese pop album? That usually translates into utter boredom. Not so on (miss)understood! criminal is a tense, dramatically charged rock ballad. Employing a piano and strings in the verses before erupting into a full band for the chorus and electric violins(I believe) later on. It’s a dark song, almost a hopeless one at times, but if there’s one thing Ayumi can do better than anyone else, it’s presenting the light at the end of the tunnel, that tiny glimmer of hope in a dirty world.
Pride is still looking for that glimmer – and finds it in a plagiarized Eurodance melody from the 90s. I never thought I’d say this, but Eurodance makes for a strong pop ballad when you slow it down and give it a gorgeous, fully orchestrated arrangement! Pride is a classic for the dense, drowning atmosphere it creates – rightfully so. It’s a masterpiece, no matter where the melody comes from. a song that accurately reflects a lifelong struggle.
I will never know how she does it, but Ayumi just makes the weirdest things work. Be it rapping over a trap beat, an electropop/swing combo, autotuning a rough rock track long before autotune was really a thing…or an Enka-tinted ballad employing traditional Japanese instruments and switching time signatures multiple times. Well, Will makes it work. Ayumi doesn’t have the vocal chops for a full-blown Enka track and thankfully realizes that, instead opting for a vague sense of Enka techniques in the melody, emulating some of the power and vibrato, but ultimately singing Will as a pop song. The result is stunningly beautiful. A gorgeous homage to an often overlooked genre.
The most mainstream-friendly Pop ballad on the album, HEAVEN finds a safe haven in familiar territory. It’s a plain, simple melody over a pretty, but toned-down arrangement, focusing on the fragility and sadness of the lyrics instead. The song does reach a climax, briefly hinting at the Enka of Will, but does so to reach katharsis rather than for dramatic purposes. There’s immense power in this brief moment, striking deep and fast and changing the entire outlook of the song in just one moment. Making HEAVEN count, rather than disappear between similar ballads.
It shouldn’t be surprising that an interlude entitled Are You Wake Up?, in all its Engrish glory, would rip you straight out of whatever mood you were in before, lift you up before preparing you to get down again. Well, that’s what interludes are there for in the end. It does its job.
Many people have spoken about the genius of fairyland before me, so I’ll make it short. It’s a J-Pop summer song that recognizes the fact that not all is perfect, that there is a shadow to all light. Good art looks at those issues – most summer dance singles do not. fairyland does and expresses that issue through its composition, delivery and production. Hence, masterpiece.
Beautiful Day is just tragic. A horrible, horrible song that should have never been included in this album. Or any album!
rainy day, once again and as final impression, does what this album does best: it contrasts the two sides of life, the hope and the pain. A minimalistic arrangement, supported by a ticking clock and occasionally clearing up, is tangible and fragile, pulling the weight of the melody. It’s another fantastic song to serve as finale for a fantastic album.
(miss)understood contains 62 minutes of the best pop music you may ever be exposed to. But the album is 67 minutes long, I hear you say – well, Beautiful Day is utter trash, so we have to subtract those 5 minutes. The density of amazing material on this album is essentially unheard of in the Pop business – the way such an incredibly diverse albums flows so well is also unheard of. It’s expertly crafted from start to finish, flowing as one but able to stand on its own in just about any given moment. There’s stronger concepts out there, but the tendency of every song on this album to look at life from two sides is impressively aware, to say the least. I’m quite critical of Ayumi, I always am critical of my favorite singers, but (miss)understood stands as Ayumi’s best. There was really no way around this rating, seeing how I gave it to lesser albums already.