Ayumi Hamasaki Album Review: Party Queen
"Party Queen" is Ayumi Hamasaki's 13th full-length album released on March 21st, 2012. It is her first full-length album to be released without any preceding singles (not counting the digital single "how beautiful you are".) News of the album first leaked in the previous autumn when Ayu went to London to record new material. British composer Timothy Wellard is featured heavily in this album, both via his compositions and his background vocals. (He also appears in two of the promotional videos and in the album booklet.)
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 - Party queen
Music: Timothy Wellard
The eponymous first track starts with a guttural dance beat and Ayu crooning "Party queeen!", probably the first time in her album history that you get to hear the album title right off the bat! The song carries the "party queen" theme to completion, including lyrics about partying and drinking alcohol (including the Japanese cheer "kanpai!" multiple times in the verse backgrounds) and the English phrase "I am your party queen!" in the chorus.
It's not a bad song. Ayu set out to create an album that went from partying to despair, and the first track delivers the party atmosphere. The arrangement is by far the best part of the song, with dark dance beats and fun electronic musings sprinkled throughout. But the arrangement is essentially saving an otherwise "meh" song. The composition isn't bad, either - this is the first of four Timothy Wellard compositions on this album, and he's proven to be a varied composer. Instead, what brings this song down the most probably is Ayu's use of her "cutesy" pop voice. Thus, what could've otherwise been a sexy and provocative tune instead becomes rather confusing: I don't know if she's going for a demure party girl or a sexy drinking diva. Given the choice, I'd rather have the latter, but it's the former I hear the most in this song.
Can't argue, however, that the best part is her declaring that she is "your party queen!" after every chorus. That's the fierceness I wanted from this song.
Track #2 - NaNaNa
After the confusing mess of the first track, we plunge right into the sirens and industrial clunks of "NaNaNa". Now, if I was already losing interest at the first track? Ayu's got my attention again! This song is the sexiness and ferocity I was wanting for this whole album - and here it is, packed into one song! The sound of this song is basically: "Hey, let's take some industrial elements, fuse them with electronica, and then just rap in English and angrily sing about partying some more." Works for me!
Ayu's gone into grungier dance-pop before, but this is the first time it really, really works. I can feel her intensity in her deep voice and her chortling "Nananana!" during Timmy's English rap breaks. Speaking of his rap, it's been a bit of contention in the Ayu fandom. People seem to either love him in this song or hate him. I for one love him in this one. He provides a much needed bridge between the monotonous verses and the soaring chorus. And you know, the lyrics are pretty damn good even on his end. Probably one of the most sobering lines of this album is their conjoined line of "You're the Party Queen / You're the Dancing Queen / I'm the Lonely Queen / Life is just a dream".
NaNana is the definitive song of the opening dance section, if not the entire album. It's getting the most replays out of any other song from me, and not one to be skipped.
VIDEO: NaNaNa gets one of the four videos on this album. While it's basically just her, Timmy, and half of London awkwardly dancing down the streets and then partying in a rave warehouse, the fun gimmick is the use of a 360 camera. It's nothing spectacular, but it's interesting to watch once in a while nonetheless.
Track #3 - Shake It♥
The opening to "Shake It" is reminiscent of previous rock-dance songs such as "1 Love" and "(don't) Leave me alone", but quickly stands out on its own with Ayu's frivolous "Oh lai lai~" chanting. The entire song is basically another "life is short, let's party!" that the entire front of the album supports. The theme is starting to get a little old by now, but if we're going with the "party queen to depressed diva" theme of the album, then this is where we start to sense Ayu's downward spiral of denial - the partying is starting to get to her, and no matter how much she encourages everyone around her to "shake it!" she can't stop the circus-theme arrangement from narrating her comedy of errors. The breakdown in the middle is practically screaming "oh, you!" at Ayu.
It tries to reach NaNaNa's level of hard-hitting awesomeness but falls flat to it. But at least it's still better than Party Queen. Either way, get up and shake dat booty, your party queen commands it.
VIDEO: The Shake It video actually precedes NaNaNa in chronology. Basically, Ayu's throwing a party at her place and all of London is invited! Nothing heavy about this video. Everyone runs to Ayu's place and she greets them all with her Party Queen presence. Hot booty shaking commences (work it, gurl) and the main merit of the video is basically appreciating how great Ayu looks.
Track #4 - taskebab
Music & Arrangement: tasuku
The first interlude on the album bridges between the first three party-dance tracks and the mid-tempo acoustic ballads of the center section. It definitely connects to the former with its guitar samples - in fact, Daft Punk fans will squee to hear the same guitar sample from "Aerodynamic" used in this track. Tasuku has always been a master of sampling.
It's a fun interlude to jam to, at the very least. Not her greatest, but far from her worse. But am I the only one who definitely hears "American car commercial" at the end?
Track #5 - call
Music: Katsumi Ohnishi
The next few songs on the album are all essentially mid-tempo pop-rock numbers, and "call" brings the sound in full force. This is Ayu's first time working with now-Do As Infinity composer Ohnishi, and it's not hard to hear Tomiko Van singing this song instead of Ayu. That said, this is probably the most "western" song on the album - the composition and arrangement sound like something straight from my middle school Disney girl days...and Timmy's "woah-oh-oh!"s in the background of the chorus isn't helping either. Of course this doesn't mean it's a bad song by any account, but it's very, shall we say, familiar?
On the other hand, it's also probably the catchiest song on the album. Even though there are plenty of other songs I prefer on this album, it's call's chorus that I get constantly stuck in my head. The hook is just TOO good of a hook. Overall the song has a very "bubbly" atmosphere even though the lyrics are starting to tread towards the darker side. In keeping with the album's lyrical flow, we're starting to see the party queen question the direction of her life while trying to remain optimsitic. Good luck with that - these next few songs are gonna do a number on that!
Track #6 - Letter
Music: Katsumi Ohnishi
As the other Ohnishi composition on this album, "Letter" keeps up the optimsitic pop-rock sound fit for another famous avex trax band. However, the subject matter and the vocals are a lot heavier than the previous track. Instead of the poppier voice used on "call", Ayu channels her inner rock diva and passionately sings about liking somebody even with all their faults (and alludes to drinking alcohol, a common theme on the album.) Rumor is that this song is about her producer and the man who "discovered" her, Max Matsuura, but Ayu said in a promotional interview that it was a letter to herself. In that case, it can be interpreted that Ayu is reassuring herself that even though she's partying too much, she's still lovable and worthy of respect.
The song is standard pop-rock fair on par with her previous songs such as "Last Links" and "It was". But it has a heavy heart and a melancholic nostalgia to it. It may not be her best song ever, but it's nothing to scoff at and serves its place on the album.
Track #7 - reminds me
Music: Yuta Nakano
We have now officially moved into the "dark" part of the album. Right away we're treated with low strings and a sense of urgency, followed by Ayu declaring that she hates being in darkness because it forces her to remember things she feels she shouldn't. As the title implies, the whole song is basically about being "triggered" into remember things that Ayu just wants to forget - and based on the angry guitars, heavy percussions, and desperate vocals, they're not good things. Ayu's frustration over these horrible memories affect her so much that she spends most of the song just declaring "LALALALA~" over the busy arragnement. These culminate in a series of high pitched "lalalas" at the end before plumetting back into the first line of the song as a quiet end. I read another reviewer explain this song as a "buildup" of Ayu's anger and frustration (to be continued in the next two songs) and I feel that it makes a lot of sense. We're now experiencing the fall of the party queen, but first she must identify what it is that is pushing her down.
I relate to this song a lot, mostly because of the lyrical contents. I've seen some criticisms about all the "Lalalas" but I personally love them. Sometimes you just don't know what to say, but you need to scream and yell until all that negative energy is gone and you can think clearly again. Time as a jury is still out, but so far i'd say this is shaping up to be one of Ayu's most passionate songs.
Track #8 - Return Road
Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
Since Ayu worked with the new Do As Infinity composer earlier in this album, it only makes sense that she returns to an original DAI composition as well. Now, whether or not he's really back as a composer is still up in the air - Ayu and avex could have been sitting on this composition for a while until it was useful. Regardless, it's always great to hear the old familiar sound that many originally fell in love with when they first started listening to Ayu.
And "Return Road" is by far the most intense song on the entire album. With clashing percussions, striking strings, and even an organ blaring through the song, there's no wondering if Ayu is upset in this song. If "reminds me" was the buildup to an explosion, then "Return Road" is that explosiion: an explosion of anger, denial, and betrayal. It's being described as the sequel to her 2010 song "Virgin Road", and not just the name implies that. "Virgin Road" was about taking a step down the road to matrimony (and indeed starred Ayu's then future husband, Manuel Schwarz). "Return Road" is about turning around and running back to the beginning again. With a promising love now failed, the march back down the wedding aisle is going to be ugly.
My only real gripe with this song is there is just so much going on - the drums, the guitars, the violins, the organ, the intense vocals (including operatics provided once again by Timmy) - that it's near impossible to just settle on one thing and enjoy it. It's a chaos of sound that probably could've stood better mixing to make it even better. But it is what it is, and it's one of the most memorable songs on this entire album. One day when people think of this album "NaNaNa", "how beautiful you are" and "Return Road" are what's going to come to their minds.
VIDEO: The video to this song essentially confirms that it's about the divorce to "Virgin Road"'s marriage, all the way down to Ayu's dress being a black, mourning copy of her white wedding dress in the former video. It also commentates on the state of Japan post the earthquake of 2011, which happened to be the reason given by Ayu for her divorce. It begins with Ayu arriving at a nuclear power plant in a tank - her minions then proceed to take over the plant and broadcast Ayu singing to all the robotic workers. In the end she wanders outside amongst all the workers and searches in vain for somebody, until a photograph of her and her ex-husband falls from her hand and the video fades out. It sounds impressive, and it is at first, but it's mostly shots of Ayu dramatically singing and westerners slamming on guitars. Yay.
Track #9 - Tell me why
Music: Hanif Sabzevari, Lene Dissing, Marcus Winther-John, Dimitri Stassos
This song is the mellow after the storm of Return Road. It's a mild-RnB number wrtten by various Greek composers, originally for the Greek pop artist Ivi Adamou. However, it's not considered a cover of her song "Sose me (Lights Out)". Odds are that avex bought the rights to this song around the same time and Ayu's just now getting around to using it, a common feat between European and Asian music markets.
"Tell my why" continues the mid-tempo reverie but uses RnB beats and despondent crooning as opposed to pop-rock guitars and dramatic strings. Still, it manages to beat out all four previous songs for "most haunting" on this album. Between Ayu desperately demanding "Oh, tell my why!" and the carefully crafted moans echoing in the background (not to mention that sensual beat and just overall great arrangement in general), this song takes all the anger and frustration of the preceding songs and just asks "Why?" After all that horror and emotion, the party queen just wants to know why it's happening at all.
Track #10 - a cup of tea
Music / Arrangement: CMJK
After all that heavy pop-rock (and you know, some RnB for good measure), we jump right into the second interlude of the album. Another fun little diddy, "a cup of tea" samples a British man asking, well, "Would you like a cup of tea?" over gritty synths and the same circus "haha! look at the queen fall!" theme originally heard in "Shake It". But when it's not repeating the themes of the earlier part of the album, it introduces whimisical strings to preview what's to come in the last few songs. Overall it's a hodgepodge of sounds, and it never seems to know what direction it's going in but...that's CMJK's M.O. in a nutshell. It's a good interlude, nothing more, nothing less.
Track #11 - the next LOVE
Music: Timothy Wellard
Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
And now for something completely different...jazz!
These next two songs, composed by Timmy, reflect a wish from Ayu to try out some Broadway show tunes. What we have first here in "the next LOVE" is a cliché number that lets the listener imagine Ayu in lingerie and rolling around on a piano in a smoky jazz bar. That's not to say, however, that it's a bad song - I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I actually like this song, given my advoidance of most jazz and wannabe-jazz sounds. It's a first time to hear Ayu attempt singing like this, and her voice hits those sultry "lalalas" at just the right spots. I could do without the speed up at the end of the song, but for the most part this song is just four minutes of something you've never heard Ayu do before. That alone gets it some merit, even if it's far from the best thing she's ever done. It's got space on my iPod, anyway.
Track #12 - Eyes, Smoke, Magic
Music: Timothy Wellard
Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
Part 2 of the Broadway showtune saga is "Eyes, Smoke, Magic", which has got to be one of the most bizarre songs Ayu has ever done. It too hits every showtune cliché it possibly can, but unlike "the next LOVE" I can't say it's pulled off well. Well, Ayu sounds good, the atmosphere is fun, funky, and whimsical, but it's not my thing. I don't outright hate this song, but I can't say it's shooting into the top 50 percentile of "favorite Ayu songs". This is the type of song that you can either LOVE or just DISLIKE - I can't imagine anyone feeling in-between about it. For me, it's not great, but I can understand how other fans may love it.
Track #13 - Serenade in A minor
Music / Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
The third and final interlude of the album is the obligatory ballad / strings instrumental. While not by any means groundbreaking for Ayu's discography, the mournful cello (I love me some cello, you don't even know) and weeping violins sound like something straight out of a heartbreaking classic Disney film. (Before, you know, everything was sunshine and roses again.) It's pretty easy to imagine this set to a dramatic silent film, which fits the theme of this final set of songs. The party queen is shedding her last slew of tears.
Track #14 - how beautiful you are
Music: Timothy Wellard
Arrangement: Yuta Nakano
The final song on the album is the ballad "how beautiful you are", a composition by Timmy that was released as a digital single one month before the album. Now, the first time i heard this song, I thought it was a standard Ayu ballad and at that, kinda boring. This was of course after listening to only the first half. During the interlude Timmy comes in with his usual uplifting vocals, and the entire song takes a turn for the "oh my god this is the best thing ever!!" As Ayu assures the listener "You don't know / How beautiful you are" throughout the ending of the song, it's hard to believe that we're not all, in fact, the most beautiful.
In retrospect the "boring" beginning is actually the perfect buidup to the climatic second half. This song wouldn't be nearly as powerful if it weren't for the piano, then the light percussion, then the heavier pecussion, and then the choral singing. If it all came at once in the beginning, the impact would be completely lost. So while the first time I heard this song I thought "meh", by the end I was nearly weeping. The last time an Ayu song hit me so emotionally was on FIVE's "Brillante", also composed by Timmy. It's also a beautiful (no pun intended) way to end the album - after partying, after crashing, after burning, after saying "I don't care", the queen is rising again and embracing what she has left of herself. She has grown from a don't-care-party-animal to somebody who sees the beauty even in the most minute aspects of life.
VIDEO: The concept of this video isn't new, although it is rarely seen in Japan - and, honestly, it doesn't even matter if we're used to it, it's a message that needs to be said again and again. Essentially it's a montage of people and couples that society has said "You are broken and must be fixed": a gay couple, a lesbian couple, a sub-dom couple, a man with OCD, a child with dwarfism, a woman with a fake leg, a body-building woman, a Native Japanese man, a man with multiple body modifications...the list goes on and on, and each one is showcased with their beauty truly shining. The only downturn is when everyone starts walking into the giant fan and it looks fake as heck. But it's only a minior grievance for an otherwise wonderful video.
AVERAGE SONG SCORE: 7.5
Listened to the album? What do you think?
As has become usual in the past few years, I met the announcement of a sudden new album with some skepticism and kept my hopes low; usually, this lets me enjoy Ayu's new releases more than if I had gotten my hopes up too high only to be disappointed with the final product. In this case it worked out well, and "Party Queen" has been on endless rotation on my laptop and on my iPod since I first listened to it. There are very few groundbreaking songs on this album, even though Ayu did try jazz and Broadway for the first time, but the thing that truly makes this album shine is the cohesive story told in carefully constructed increments. The sordid tale of a party queen discovering that her life is spiraling out of control until she finally manages to pick herself up again anew is not new to the music world, but it is told with sympathy and a personal realism that may make any of Ayu's fans question what is really going on in her life.
Visually, the album falls flat in the music video department, with the exception of perhaps "how beautiful you are". I personally love the album covers and booklet, although because of local rules I can't share some of them with you due to their more risque content. Everything about this album was carefully considered and crafted and it shows in the final product. But it is an album that you'll probably either love or hate. There's no denying the rift it's caused (yet again) in the Ayu fandom.
Is "Party Queen" a good album? Yes. Is it the best of the year? Possibly, it's still early yet. Is it the best ever? No, not at all. But its worth listening to and appreciating all the same.
All images in this hub are copyright avex trax/Leslie Kee. They are used here for promotional purposes only.