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Hikaru Utada’s First Best-Of Album ‘SCIENCE FICTION’ Explained: How the Fluid Artist’s Works Transcend Boundaries

Pop hitmaker Hikaru Utada recently dropped the first best-of collection of their career entitled SCIENCE FICTION. One of Asia’s leading pop superstars since the late 1990s, Utada released a compilation encompassing their vast catalog entitled Utada Hikaru SINGLE COLLECTION VOL. 1/VOL. 2 in the past, but this was a collection of singles and not a best-of album.

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The 41-year-old artist has always been able to grasp the fluid atmosphere existing between themselves and the times, and then deconstruct and reconfigure themselves accordingly. This means that their best-of project isn’t simply a collection of songs from the past, but is a set of works that vividly reflects who they are today. As such, songs that were first released long ago have been remixed and re-recorded, and a brand new song has also been included in the project. The album, mysteriously crowned SCIENCE FICTION, is a fresh and ambitious “new work” typical of the veteran pop artist.

It’s still hard to say that Hikaru Utada’s recent works — with origins in R&B and magically transformed over the years by their absorption of other genres including electronica — have been widely embraced outside of Asia. Fortunately, the “Pink Blood” star’s talents are gradually being discovered in the U.S. BAD MODE, their latest album featuring a meticulously detailed soundscape featuring collaborations with A.G. Cook and Floating Points, was ranked No. 31 on Pitchfork’s list of “The 50 Best Albums of 2022.” Also, “Somewhere Near Marseilles” came in at No. 10 on the online music publication’s “The 100 Best Songs of 2022” list. A new version, dubbed the “Sci-Fi Edit”, of this track is included in Utada’s latest album.

The “First Love” singer-songwriter’s performance on the main stage at Coachella in 2022 probably helped boost their visibility in the American music scene as well. After their first-ever music festival set alongside a variety of 88rising acts, the Asian star’s music is slowly gaining traction in the U.S. market. In fact, among the songs on SCIENCE FICTION, “First Love,” “One Last Kiss,” and “Kimini Muchuu” (crazy about you) all charted on Billboard’s Global 200 and Global Excl. U.S. tallies (on the latter, at No. 61, No. 14, and No. 21, respectively), and “Face My Fears,” a collaborative track with Skrillex and Poo Bear, charted on the all-genre Hot 100 list.

All these highlights happened after 2019. Utada’s music and current environment have changed dramatically since their first album First Love became the best-selling album of all time in Japan and rewrote the history of the country’s pop music back in the late ‘90s. Now based in London, the J-pop giant is resonating with various corners of pop and left-field music being produced globally. That’s why this best-of album, SCIENCE FICTION, is the perfect opportunity to encourage further discovery of this illustrious musician’s appeal.

Seeing as this best-of set is so current that it could be considered new, let’s draw a few auxiliary lines to help listeners understand it. The first thing that catches our attention is the title of the album, SCIENCE FICTION. Since this is also the name of Utada’s upcoming concert tour set for later this year, it may be premature to try to unravel the mystery based solely on the contents of the album. But it’s a convincing concept when considering their career up to this point.

After starting out as singer-songwriter whose music leaned toward R&B, the “Automatic” artist has gradually moved further towards electronic music since their third album DEEP RIVER (2002) and has infused their songs with the physicality brought to life through computer music and enhanced by live performances. In BAD MODE, Utada experimented with more electronic sounds in collaboration with A.G. Cook and Floating Points, where the level looping rhythms and the off kilter alien-like sound processing inserted here and there strike a strange balance, although they’re contradictory. Let’s use “universality” and “discomfort” to describe these conflicting elements. When asked in an earlier interview about these two elements present in their works, they replied, “Music is a very physical thing,” and then went on to say:

“(Music) can be waveforms, it can be thought of in terms of frequency, in terms of texture, in terms of volume. I’m the kind of person who wants to achieve a very spherical shape. I think if you’re careful about the distribution of all the elements, you naturally end up with the overall balance you’re aiming for. I think about the predictable and unpredictable areas, like, ‘If it’s there only once in the song, it’ll be like I intended it,’ and consider how often and how much I should blend in that sense of discomfort down to each element. I also think about the relationship between those elements in terms of their distribution.”

Utada’s words indicate that they pursue balance with an extremely objective perspective, and their approach of expanding their sound by introducing a sense of discomfort into something universal can be said to be somewhat science fiction-like. The way the mechanicalness and physicality are precariously assembled under a tense sense of equilibrium, combined with their distinctive musical prosody through bilingual lyrics, prick our emotions every time we listen to their works.

Since revealing the name of their new best-of set, Utada has hinted that their interest in quantum mechanics and simulation hypothesis inspired the title. In “A Flower of No Color,” their latest single and included in the upcoming project, they sing, “According to  renowned scholars / We are just illusions / But today / as always / I’m in love with you,” and, “But / if I can’t believe in myself / I can’t believe in anything / That’s synonymous with not existing / Only the facts that can’t be proven / Are called truths” These lyrics evoke themes such as the anthropic principle and philosophical realism — perhaps the “renowned scholar” is Nick Bostrom?

Another standout example from the album is their new song “Electricity,” released for the first time on this album. This track, with a rippling beat by Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points, again features some innovative prosody with a strange “E-E-E-E–le-e-e-e-ctri-i-city” sound, and Utada goes on to sing, “Fearing the unknown / addicted to conspiracy theories / To all such humanity / I want you to read a letter that Einstein wrote / to his daughter / Love is Light, Love is the quintessence,” referring to the much-discussed topic of fake news. In this age where fragments of meaning are endlessly propagated, the “Find Love” artist tells us that “the story engraved in our components / won’t end even if writing disappears from this planet,” offering a conclusion before disappearing into the distance with the sound of the saxophone. 

While skillfully interweaving the dichotomies of pop/alternative, Japanese/English, universality/discomfort, and reality/fiction, Hikaru Utada the artist exists as the result of someone who has slipped through all such oppositions, fluidly moving between themselves and the times. Their presence shimmering just like science fiction, this lambent musician is now moving to the next phase of their career.

This article by Tsuyachan first appeared on Billboard Japan

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