Happy 10th Anniversary to Utada Hikaru’s eighth studio and fifth Japanese-language album Heart Station, originally released March 19, 2008.
A lot can happen in 10 years and for Utada Hikaru—singer, songwriter, musician, producer—this couldn't be more true. Setting aside her “starter” album on the Toshibi EMI label, Precious (1998), Utada's proper introduction came in the form of a double A-side single several months after Precious—“Time Will Tell / Automatic.” That single's parent project, her actual debut, First Love (1999), was constructed from stirring lyrics tracked to bold, R&B-pop rhythms. First Love made living history by resetting Japanese music culture single-handedly upon its release. Utada was only 16 at the time.
The ensuing decade was jam-packed with activity that saw the vocalist maintain her dominance at home, but begin to expand globally to become the most visible Asian recording artist in popular music. A triptych of albums had Utada at her experimental height—Deep River (2002), Exodus (2004) and Ultra Blue (2006). Their sonic textures were varied, vivid, esoteric and uncompromising. All three long players helped to transition Utada out of her accomplished, if precocious phase and into an adulthood space.
Now, after testing her boundaries, she had an entirely brand new battery of musical skills at her disposal. They were readied for practical and engaging application on her eighth studio affair overall, Heart Station.
Staffing for Utada's recordings was sparse, outside of any necessary session players needed to execute her vision. However, she always made two exceptions with her habitual co-producer Miyake Akira and her father, Teruzane Utada. As recording began, Utada suffered a personal setback—a divorce from her first husband, film director/photographer Kazuaki Kiriya. The rupture of their seven-year relationship contributed to the LP's navel-gazing mood.
There is a generous—and gorgeous—colloquy of musical ideas on Heart Station, from electronic atmospherics to live band elements, they cast an aura that is light (“Fight the Blues”), open (“Flavor of Life”) and musing (“Stay Gold”), putting forward the theory of emotional release through music into practice here. This comes across best on the feathery dance-funk of “Celebrate” and its equally enticing preface “Gentle Beast Interlude.” The sound ideas are not only feeling and thinking throughout, they're diverse too. But, they're organized cohesively to ensure a comfortable listen.
On Deep River, Exodus and Ultra Blue, Utada covered countless topics. Some were semi-autobiographical, yet Utada would occasionally disguise herself as the character in whatever narrative she was singing in that moment. This line of lyrical creation did not lapse on Heart Station, but, as with the album's entirety, Utada sought artistic refinement over artistic obduration. Take the breakdown of her marriage, she doesn't address it directly, but it clearly informs the cogitative streak running through the title song and “Prisoner of Love.”
“Heart Station” details how two lovers on the outs cannot communicate with the other, but their thoughts get picked up by a radio station which broadcasts these thoughts to the respective partner. Fantastical? Yes, but Utada makes it relatable and human, traits that personify the heartsick “Prisoner of Love” and the convexity of Heart Station as a complete body of work.
In the late fall of 2006, Utada released what was to be Heart Station's first single, “Boku wa Kuma” (translation: I'm a Bear). Over the course of 2007, several other singles appeared from the set, even as it was being constructed. All of it left an appealing trail leading up to Heart Station's inaugural issuance in Japan on March 19, 2008. Select international territories received it a month later, a sign of Utada's continually growing base outside of Japan. Heart Station was a smash critically and commercially at home and a notable pivot for Utada. The record was the actualization of Utada's talents and the understanding of how— and when—to utilize them.
Experimentation, for the sake of it, has its place, but a little restraint goes a long way. Heart Station evinces that art can still captivate, even if it takes a milder route.