A Look at Fantôme and Utada Hikaru’s Musical Evolution

Utada Hikaru is probably best known among English-speaking fans for singing the iconic Simple and Clean theme from the Kingdom Hearts games, with her end theme song Beautiful World for the Evangelion Rebuild movies coming as a close second in terms of notoriety among nerds. And while she never truly reached mainstream media fame in the states, she’s made quite the reputation for herself in her native Japan, having started her musical career back in 1996, and her popularity only steadily increasing from there.

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Now a full 20 years after her debut, Utada Hikaru’s Fantôme is the first album she released after her musical hiatus from 2011-2016. Of note, however, isn’t the quality of the tracks themselves, but where they stand when looking at Utada’s career as a whole.

Too often do musicians end up falling in a rut, creating music that ends up being derivative of their older work (or as I like to call it, the Avril Lavigne effect). And while this may not necessarily hurt their core fanbase who is eager to take on more of the same, it does take a clear hit to their notoriety in a “radio playing” sense. Why listen to a new thing when an old thing holds up just as well and sounds pretty much the same? Also taking into account music’s ever-changing landscape and how it evolves over time, it just feels less awkward to listen to a time-capsule sort of piece from ages past rather than a recent piece that insists on shoehorning a long-ended aesthetic into its style. Sure there are some exceptions, but more often than not, it’s less a case of the mainstream being unaccepting to an older “style” than it is the musician themselves being unwilling to adapt and evolve past their comfort zone. And you can’t exactly blame the musicians that insist on towing the line, since experimentation leads to so many more pitfalls.

In the case with Fantôme, though, the album as a whole just… is. There’s nothing too toe-tapping or ear-wormy in any of the tracks, but listening to it while keeping in mind Utada’s history does make for a more pleasant listen. Literally having gone through all her major hits from 1998’s Automatic and moving onwards from there, you can witness Utada’s musical growth and maturation, as she transitions from radio pop, to ballads. And it’s in witnessing this range and progress that I found true enjoyment from what should otherwise be a middleground album.

[Utada Hikaru’s Fantôme can be purchased on the US amazon site]

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