For me, the height of Ayumi Hamasaki's career was the 2002/2003 Rainbow / I Am... era. On those two albums, Ayu and Max Matsuura forged an original and intensely modern sound, one that combined the futuristic gloss and production of electronic dance music with the grind and guitar base of hard rock, all leavened with strong pop flourishes that somehow sounded more ambitious than any of Ayu's previous material (which had been good, to be honest, if a bit sugary and conventional). Appellations like 'dancy metal-pop' or 'club-core with solos' sound ridiculous, but accurately describe the albums' innovative fusions. And they were albums, too, with transitions and spaced-out interludes to bridge the more disparate songs. Because of the unified production, a straight up club track like 'Connected' could segue easily into the driving rock of 'Evolution', and the whole thing felt seamless. For a while, Ayumi Hamasaki really did feel like the most modern pop star in the world, one who could get mentioned in grasping Time magazine supplements and still make you want to put her singles on your playlist.
But like many of my favorite artists, my estimation of Ayu's music has been up and down. From being intensely into her during the aforementioned period, I fairly lost interest through albums like My Story - which weren't bad, per se, but I had more pressing things to listen to at the time; and then this year's (miss)understood just about killed my regard for her completely. Although advance-release singles like 'Step You' and 'Alterna' set up some high expectations, they were ultimately misleading. You see, Ayu had been listening to Euro-dance group Sweetbox (inexplicably popular in Japan, justifiably unknown everywhere else), and had decided she liked their music so much she wanted their songs for herself. And that's what essentially happened: Sweetbox producer Geo loaned her backing tracks which had already been used on Sweetbox albums to fill out most of (miss)understood. See, that may be okay in context, but when I buy an Ayumi Hamasaki album, I'm expecting to hear Ayumi Hamasaki, not her covering a peripheral group I don't even care about. It's like buying a new Metallica record only to find out it's not actually a new Metallica record, but them covering shitty, old Blue Oyster Cult songs (okay...sadly...that one has happened too. Fuck you, Garage Inc.) This pinched production, combined with some truly horrible songs (I'm looking at you, 'Bold & Delicious') made me think Ayu was, for lack of a better term, washed-up, or at least in need of some serious career-reconsideration. All of this is a lead-in to say that a lot was resting on Secret, coming as it does only a few months after the (miss)-step. Were it to continue the trend of that album, I'd feel safe in relegating Ayu to the ranks of has-beens like Namie Amuro or YUKI: once massively influential, now only barely capable of cranking out a decent single or two every few years. Were it to be, unexpectedly, a return to form, then Ayu would have proved herself to be more than the equal of her sometimes-rival Utada: a true national icon and long-haul player, not just an idol but an artist.
Well...surprise! Ayu WINS! This is a great album. From its very first track, Secret destroys all fears: Ayu is very much alive and in no need of resuscitation. Seeming to have taken my advice, she's returned to Max Matsuura's production as if from a deeply regrettable adulterous affair, and Matsuura has welcomed her with open arms so that they can get back to the business of creating beautiful music. Everything great about the early albums is present in force, progressively expanding as the album unfolds. From the moment - somewhere around the fifty-second mark - where the synths and drums open up, panning across both channels like rogue waves, album-opener 'Not Yet' lets you know Ayu is resolutely back: it's a commanding intro, minimalistic but forceful, with impeccable production. This powerful phased opening sets expectations high: it's crammed with tension and space, and Ayu's simple lyric, repeated over in true techno fashion, quickly builds force. At just two minutes it's the perfect length to hook listeners and leave them breathlessly anticipating whatever is to come next. Not yet? Right now, is more like it.
'Until that Day' fulfills that promise, opening with an old-style, almost Led Zeppelin-type riff before breaking into waves of patented tech-rock. The chorus speeds it all up as Ayu spits vocals, while the bridge brings in an acoustic guitar to counterpoint the industrial clammer and almost-rap of the chorus. This song is the mark of a producer working with every color in his palette, completely in control of his materials; and Ayu sounds more confident than she has in years. Her voice has matured: it's no longer the little-girl squeal it was in something like 'Boys and Girls', and it doesn't need to rely on crutches like the digital voice-manipulation in some of the I Am... era tracks. Although not a natural by any stretch, Ayu has become, through incessant training and experience, a genuinely great vocalist, one who sounds just as commanding as the multilayered production swirling around her. She pwns this track.
The excellent 'Startin'', heard previously this year in single format, remains a blast of classic Ayu/Matsuura-style hard rock, with its serpentine guitar line underpinning the stadium-sized chorus and turntable breaks. The video is pretty corny by Ayu standards, but definitely a great pisstake the first time you see it, with Ayu ragging on Britney Spears and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. After scores of uber-serious art-videos filled with disembodied eyeballs, Victorian peep-shows and futuristic factories churning out dance-androids, it's nice to know that Ayu can laugh at herself with a more lighthearted PV.
Startin' music video
'1LOVE' continues the rock (yes!), with strong guitars and a chorus that takes a little while longer to embed itself, but does the job nicely after that. It has a great Fellini-esque video too, continuing the decadence theme common in Ayu's recent big-budget videos. Ayu has always been savvy about the role played by mediation and soullessness in corporate pop music (the 'Alterna' video was high-level conceptual satire - seriously), but the '1LOVE' video is decadence for the sake of decadence - nothing wrong with that, after all - with Ayu working the stripper's pole in a room full of swirling clouds of cash, and later, circus freaks. What more could you ask for? It sure beats Koda Kumi's prissy 'ero-kawaii' gimmickry.
1Love music video
These opening tracks, the first quarter of the album, are such a quantum leap over anything on (miss)understood, indeed are so dead-to-rights, that you're reminded of how genuinely exciting and forward-sounding Ayu can be. Up to now, Secret has been so good that if it continued to maintain this level of quality, it'd easily be a contender for album of the year, and a true Ayu career highlight. Does the album maintain? Well, pretty much yes. The following trio of songs, 'It Was', 'Labyrinth' and 'JEWEL' move the album into a slower phase. The second is one of the album's two interludes, and provides a nice bridge to its second half. 'JEWEL' is pretty well your standard Hamasaki piano ballad, not bad by any stretch, if you're into that sort of thing. It sounds unexceptional to me, but then I've heard enough Hamasaki piano ballads to the point where this one doesn't sound like it does enough to distinguish itself (and, I'm sorry, but - JEWEL? What the hell? When is it cool for Ayu to steal song titles from my future girlfriend Sifow? Didn't I already warn her that Fujita-san was going to give her a run for it? Shame...). Still, it offers a nice respite between more interesting tracks, another kind of breath-catcher. 'momentum' is just that, a track which picks up the pace again, with an almost 'M' style intro. 'taskinst' is another instrumental interlude - but this time it's full-on riffage! You'd never have heard guitar crunch like this in Ayu's earlier intermissions, which were almost always quiet and piano-based, or else jazzy electronica. It's a nicely bombastic intro, leading into...
A song written for the 2006 Winter Olympics, 'Born to Be'. It's appropriately dramatic, a completely over-the-top, multi-tracked vocal-backed monster; too big, too loud and damn good. Ayu (and the production) unashamedly grandstand, trying to rise to the lofty Olympic occasion with a suitably Olympic-sized song. You could use it to soundtrack military marches, boxing warmup sessions, political inaugurations - anything big and formal and Triumph of the Will-y, really. Ayu and Matsuura should be commissioned to write a new Japanese national anthem or something.
'Beautiful Fighters' has one of those incredibly catchy vocal hooks and choruses that marked out old-school Ayu tracks like 'Real Me'. This is just a great straight-up pop song, one destined to be remixed a million times and pulled apart into thirty-two flavors of electronic taffy. It's followed by 'Blue Bird'...uh. Didn't like this when I first heard it as a single, and to be honest it's not a really great track, sounding like some kind of remix or alternate version of the earlier single 'Fairyland'. But it's got some nice floaty beats that are kind of cool. As a whole, it's pretty 'summery', not really standout but not bad either. But 'Kiss o' Kill' is immediately more interesting, mirroring the approach of 'Not Yet' with its sudden explosion of sound, although this one's even more driving and propulsive. The sequencing is interesting here: this song could easily have been the album opener, but has been placed instead as the penultimate track. Most albums have already faded out by this point, but Secret is still going strong, and 'kiss o' kill' is one of its best tracks. Really, how exciting is it to reach the end of an album and to find Ayu still pulling off surprising and exciting tracks like this? Sequencing can really make or break a disc, and Secret has some of the best-thought-out sequencing of any album I've heard all year. Fittingly enough, it closes with the title track, a ballad - and one I think is a lot better than 'JEWEL', the ballad-single here. 'Secret' is nicely understated, with a gently insistent Ayu chorus with some lovely singing, sending the album out on a prettified note. Note the nice contrasts working here, especially coming after 'Kiss o' Kill': as mentioned before, the dynamic shifts from track to track are great, never allowing a single groove to get monotonous. As soon as Secret is finished you immediately want to play it again, just to hear this muscular and air-tight album's arrangements from start to finish. No real skippable tracks; how rare is that?
In light of this album, (miss)understood seems like a barely-remembered bad dream, or (more accurately, given its Sweetbox fixation) a palate-cleansing night of karaoke before the real thing. I was a little worried about Hamasaki's continued viability there for a while, but Secret has completely confounded my expectations - for the better! This album kicks just as much ass as the classics, and I'd recommend it without question to both longtime fans and initiates wondering what the big deal is about Asia's biggest pop star and the most remixed artist in the world. Really, way to go, Ayu.
Momentum music video