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Ayumi Hamasaki Album Review: FIVE
"FIVE" is Ayumi Hamasaki's 2nd mini-album released on August 31st, 2011. It is technically her first album release of any kind without any preceding single release, and her first release ever to have songs credited to other vocalists in the titles. The theme of the mini-album is "HOPE" as it is Ayu's first release post the March 11th Great Tohoku Earthquake, which affected her deeply. (If the letters in the cover title are slightly rearranged, the word "HOPE" can be read.) Although only five tracks, "FIVE" ranges a large spectrum of genres both familiar and new to Ayu's music career, the most notable of which being a heavier RnB sound than she's ever used before. Like her previous and first mini-album "Memorial address" eight years earlier, every track on this release has an accompanying music video.
Other firsts and notes of this mini-album, before delving into the full review, include the return of Leslie Kee as Ayu's principal photographer, the use of a composition (and vocals) by musician Timothy Wellard for the first time, and that every track was arranged by ex-HAL musician Yuta Nakano.
This review consists of a track-by-track analysis followed by my overall thoughts. Each song is scored on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best. It should be noted that scores are based on comparison's to Ayu's other works, not to music as a whole. With over 200 original songs in her library, I mostly compare Ayu's work against itself, and thus the scoring will reflect a song's standing in her library.
Disclaimer: By no means is this review the be-all-end-all of what is and isn't great. I'm just one big fan with a lot of bias but also a lot of expectations. Feel free to add your thoughts about this album in the comments below!
Track #1 - progress
Music & Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
The album begins with the ascension of strings and a solitary piano heralding Ayu's arrival. As she gently sings the opening verse the piano gradually becomes more complicated and the strings return. Eventually Ayu's vocals hit the chorus, and we're taken on a quiet, but triumphant journey through an inspirational little moment.
And then "stuff gets real".
Just as you're getting comfortable and ready to enjoy a relaxing piano ballad, the drums kick in and suddenly the song becomes a surgary surge of energy. Things calm back down for the second verse, but with the raising background vocals it's obvious we're in for another uplifting chorus.
Then electric guitars!
Then more drums!
"In and out" is a good way to describe this song. "progress" doesn't like the listener to get too comfortable, and this album opener is both subtle and hair-raising. It was completely done by ex-HAL member Yuta Nakano, and it has "HAL" slobbered all over it. My first impression after listening to this song was, "Wow, now this is some old-school Ayu here!" This song sounds like something straight out of her RAINBOW era back in 2002, which lends a great familiarity for people who have been fans for years. But the danger with that is that we've heard it all before. There is no surprise in "progress" save for the first time you're smacked with the rush of adrenaline...that you may have been expecting anyway. For those coming across this song randomly, there is no wondering "huh, what old album is this from?" because Ayu's "newer" vocals give her away. You can hear her struggling a little to hit her old classic notes, and I beg to wonder how many takes this song took to get it to sound even this good.
This isn't to say that "progress" is boring or too try-hard. Indeed, it's quite a brilliant song, and both nostalgic and innovative all the same. The purest part of the song is of course the lyrics, which connect to the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake poignantly with the chorus "Living in the same time / Believing in the same future / Our tears of yesterday and our smiles of today are both as true". In classic Ayu fashion she's relating all of her personal pain and tribulations into a hopeful future for everyone to share.
It's a good, solid song, and a perfect opener to get the blood flowing and the ears saying "Yup, it's Ayu". But while I love the message and the sound, my biggest gripe are her vocals, which are probably some of my least favorite in a very long time. She's screeching, but it's not endearing like it can be at times - she just sounds like she's struggling to hit notes she can't anymore, and in headphones it can suck you right out of the song.
VIDEO: Ayu appears very little in this video. We only see her in profile majestically singing her song (and in the end, which will be alluded to later.) The camera goes between her in the beginning and to slow-motion takes of downtown Japanese life. When the song picks up so does the camera, and suddenly we're taken on a light-speed journey across Earth, stopping every so often to focus on an "average" person sharing Ayu's pain. In the end we're stopped in the American desert to see ("Dearest" era, is that you?!) Ayu standing wide-mouthed and wide-eyed towards the camera. Fade out. Well, that was fun,.
Track #2 - ANother song feat. URATA NAOYA
Music & Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
Well, it only took, what, fifteen years?, and we finally have Ayu's first real RnB song since "NOTHING FROM NOTHING" in 1996. Oh, and it's also her first official collaboration. Joining us for this two-birds, one-stone song is AAA member Naoya Urata, who for some reason needs to shout his name at everybody. Ayu's collaborated with Naoya before when she produced his solo single "Dream on" a few months before. That was more of upbeat RnB, and this song is all slow jam with generic RnB beats and some Ayu chimes.
What's more, this song starts off with Naoya singing as opposed to Ayu. So let's begin by analyzing their compatibility. Naoya has a very "pop basic RnB" voice that never sounds out of place and is made for harmonizing. Ayu sounds like Ayu. (Actually, when she first starts singing, she sounds very "MY STORY" era!) They sound nothing alike and Ayu is used to having all the spotlight, and it kinda shows in this song. Naoya takes a backseat in their harmonies, and you could hear Ayu's belting out over any dang choir because that's what it does. Their harmonies are mismatched until the end, when they start hitting different notes that actually manage to come together and sound like they did it on purpose! Hooray!
The song itself is just general basic generics. If you've heard any pop/RnB song before, you've heard "ANother song". (See, even the title has given up.) But since it's the first in Ayu's library, it sticks out, and it's not "boring". So in the end she gets major props for doing something totally different, even if it doesn't sound totally different. And at five minutes long, it's really not trying to sound totally different. Nice song. Moving on.
VIDEO: Ayu looks fabulous in her black outfit; Naoya looks swank in his black outfit. Hey, let's get more guys in more black outfits jammin' while we mirror each other with All Our Feelz! Okay, the video is better than that, with some fancy camera work that lends to a very beautiful video. But it's not much more than eye candy that's best swallowed sparingly if you don't want to lose the effect.
Track #3 - Why... feat. JUNO
Music: Hara Kazuhiro
Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
Another RnB type track with ANOTHER male collaborator? Didn't we just do this on like, the last song?
Except "Why..." is really not RnBish and is more pop-rock, and JUNO's voice blends in much better with Ayu's. This song is just gorgeousness from every angle. The arrangement is Yuta Nakano during a creative spurt, and the harmonies between Ayu and JUNO are passionate and uplifting. I actually feel like JUNO belongs on this song, and when he takes a backseat to Ayu during the choruses it sounds like that's what he's supposed to be doing and that Ayu isn't just overpowering him. You can actually imagine them somewhere singing and feeling pretty strongly about it.
My initial feeling about this song is that it would be even greater with just Ayu and her own usual backup vocals, but further listens make me really appreciate JUNO's vocals as well. "Why..." would get pretty stale after a while if it were just Ayu - JUNO adds a whole other dimension to this song. And at only three minutes long, it doesn't have time to get boring and is just the right length for listening to once or over and over again. This song is classic Ayu with brand new twists and a whole lotta replay value. Terrific.
VIDEO: BUTTERFLIES. EVERYWHERE. And flowers. For the butterflies. No but seriously, a gorgeous video for a gorgeous song! Ayu is trapped in an "Alice in Wonderland" type world (complete with ghost-like JUNO in a Mad Hatter's hat) covered in butterflies and delicious flowers. Foreign models pop out of everywhere trying to crush Ayu on her quest for her One True Love JUNO. How dare they! Run away, Ayu! You can find your ghost-hatter! HE'S IN THE CHAIR BEHIND YOU! No, no! That's a model trapped in a box! Don't open it! Aaaah!...oh, never mind. Ayu never catches/sees/rescues anyone in her videos. When will I learn this?
#4 - beloved
Music: Yasuhiko Hoshino
Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
We're on track four of this five-track mini-album, and we've yet to hit a piano ballad. Well this just won't do, so here's "beloved".
Yasuhiko Hoshino brings us another laid-back, pretty composition fit for gushing lyrics by Ayu, and Yuta Nakano just knows that means "piano time!" Thankfully, it's rather a memorable song, even if far, far from her best. There's nothing new here, but as usual, Ayu brings her A-game and delivers another ballad to mention in a letter home. I really wish there was more to say about it. But it's Ayu singing an Ayu-ballad. You're either gonna love it based on that pretext or roll your eyes and hit "skip" half the time. Or all the time, if seeing "Ayu" and "ballads" together makes you run.
The composition is solid, the lyrics are lovely, the arrangement is expected, and the vocals are actually better than usual. I think over time this may become one of my more favorite "generic" Ayu ballads, but for now it's just here.
VIDEO: This video wins all the awards for everything for just basically being a glamor video showing off how gorgeous Ayu is. Because we can never have enough of those.
...Oh okay, there are some cute foreign kids and everything turns into color in the end to signify something about strength and overcoming adversity or something like that. But those glamor shots. Can you tell this video was directed by a photographer?
Track #6 - BRILLANTE
Music: Timothy Wellard
Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
Our brief journey through FIVE is coming to a close so soon. And damn, what is this! Besides a musical epiphany?
I'm just going to come out and say this right now because I'll be thinking back to it the entire time I'm typing up my review of this song: this song made me cry the first time I heard it. I'm serious. We're talking straight up emotional tears. Not bawling, not sobbing, not even full on tears-down-my face, but there was water and a lot of feelings welling up inside. I've never been so moved by a song (even an Ayu song) in years. But this song is so stinkin' brilliant (imagine!) and emotional that I could not contain myself.
This song is the first to be composed by and feature background vocals of Timothy Wellard, who would go on to be a huge influence during Ayu's subsequent "Party Queen" era. Can I shake this guy's hand? This song is so hauntingly beautiful and full of regret and remorse (while the arrangement plods optimistically on) that I feel like I should shake this guy's hand. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"BRILLANTE" opens with Timmy's made-up language chanting, which if you don't know is coming is beyond ominous and completely left-field for this album. But it's intriguing, and when the drums, the cymbals, and the strings join in you know it's going to be an emotional ride. I can't even really describe Ayu's vocals in this song: hopeless? Desperate? Explanatory? The lyrics in this song are beyond heartwrenching in their simplicity and the simple, whispery way Ayu sings them. "BRILLANTE" tells the tales of a woman on the brink of collapse who realizes that the only way to save her lover, to save her life, to save her world is by leaving, by abandoning, and sacrificing everything and continuing along a desolate road on her own. When she sings "I couldn't see anything / And then I could see everything" during the chorus, it's as if the entire universe is exploding in her head as horrible realization settles in. After the second chorus, the arrangement transcends this world and lifts Ayu's liberties with the vision of her walking along a narrow road, head held high as she leaves everything behind but inside she is dying. I think the point where I just totally lost it was the ending when Timmy takes over with his choral chanting and singing "goodbye" in several languages. The arrangement starts to break up before finally cracking into a chaotic, abrupt end. This song is a true collaboration between Ayu the lyricist, Timmy the composer, and yes, even Yuta Nakano the arranger.
To say this song changed the way I viewed Ayu at the moment is laughable. This was the first song I heard from her in years where I was just simply struck with nothing and everything all at once. It may still be too early to say, but "BRILLANTE" may very well be one of the late mangum opera of her career. It's definitely held a profound influence on my life and career. Upon hearing this song the first time I was compelled to rewrite the entire end game of my novel to reflect the emotions this song made me feel. That's...a pretty huge deal!
I must stop talking about this song now. I implore you to listen, and even if you don't like it at all, at least I made you listen!
VIDEO: This video can feel...silly. Ayu practically dressed as Wonder Woman in a shower full of half-naked athletes. Then she leads them on a victory march to the top of a pyramid, where Timmy her magician / adviser tries to help her keep everything together while her "people" clamor at her feet. Then Ayu dies.
It's easy to laugh at this PV, and indeed, Ayu even insinuated in an interview that we should "laugh" at it. But it is a very poignant story that reflects the lyrics as well. Ayu struggles to save herself, to save her people, to save her whole world before finally sacrificing herself just as she declares she will in the lyrics. As she dies it's easy to believe that she's gone off on some unseen road alone.
Bonus Track - Why... feat. URATA NAOYA
Oh, but we're not quite done yet. "BRILLANTE" was the official final track of this mini-album, but there's two bonus tracks, depending on what version you get.
If you get the CD+DVD (or Blu Ray) version, then you get a remix of "Why..." featuring Naoya instead of JUNO tacked on the end of "BRILLANTE". Sounds great, right? I mean, "Why..." was the next best track according to this review, so....?
Well, first of all, it's kinda of jarring. The remix is rather all over the place and while charming, it ruins the mood just established by "BRILLANTE". Plus, JUNO was part of what made "Why..." so great originally, and now Naoya is just kinda...there. At least it's just a remix and not the original track laid for this song. Nice effort, but moving on now.
Bonus Track - beloved (Orchestra Version)
Meanwhile, if you pick up the CD only version, you get an orchestral mix of "beloved". So, instead of piano, you get strings. Now, I love me some strings. I definitely prefer strings over piano any day. But this is still a case of "Oh, Ayu did this song. It's over here if you want to listen to it." But now with strings instead of piano.
...I feel like a fun thing to do would be listen to the original and then this mix back to back over and over again at a party and see who cracks first. Maybe get some huge stan war between piano purists and string enthusiasts going on and make a drinking game out of it. Dang, why aren't we doing that right now? Let's finish this review and break out the beatbox!
SCORE: ...what score did I give "beloved"? Let's go with that.
AVERAGE SONG SCORE: 7.42
Listened to this album? What did you think?
Summing up "FIVE" isn't as easy as it may seem granted that there are only five tracks. But they are five tracks that represent five very different facets of Ayu's music. There's the pop-rock anthem, the RnB love duet, the pop-rock love duet, the piano ballad, and the super emotional "out there" track that people will be talking about for years. Each one brings their own merits to the proverbial table, but to say that they are all equal is disingenuous.
"FIVE" is a short listen: a pleasant listen, but a short and pleasant one all the same. There's a little something for everyone as covered before, and many brand new surprises. The covers and general photography are gorgeous, as short-blonde-haired Ayu gets as fierce and fabulous as most of the tracks on this album. (In fact, I have no qualms announcing that the CD Only cover is my favorite Ayu cover Of All Time. I need that in poster form, stat.) However, most of the videos leave something to be desired, and in this area falls flat especially in comparison to "Memorial address", Ayu's first mini-album with far superior music videos.
Regardless, "FIVE" is a solid entry to Ayu's discography. Most fans should be able to find one of the five songs to cling to, if not more, and given her varied music tastes 1/5 really isn't that bad. (Especially when also accounting for finicky fans' tastes.) New listeners are encouraged to give Ayu a first listen via this album as well, with the caveat that she's charting some new territory for her even after twelve previous studio albums. It's a safe bet for listening granted that it's short enough that, even if you hate it, you won't hate yourself too much for taking the time to listen to it. But odds are you won't hate it. I most certainly didn't, and now, excuse me, I think I shall go listen to it again.
All images in this hub are copyright avex trax/Leslie Kee. They are used here for promotional purposes only.