[Album] Ayumi Hamasaki – Secret

~Tracklist~
01. Not yet
02. until that Day…
03. Startin’
04. 1 LOVE
05. It was
06. LABYRINTH
07. JEWEL
08. momentum
09. taskinst
10. Born To Be…
11. Beautiful Fighters
12. BLUE BIRD
13. kiss o’ kill
14. Secret

~Album Review~
This album was released on November 29, 2006, and peaked at number one on the Oricon charts. The album sold 666,396 copies total, and the ballad used to promote the album, “JEWEL,” sold 750,000 ringtones. To put this in perspective, (miss)understood sol 877,000 copies, and each of its single sold at least that many ringtones, with the exception of “Bold & Delicious / Pride.”

“Secret” was a rushed end to 2006; orginally slated to be a mini-album, Avex made Ayu lengthen it to a full studio album. Although “momentum” took the longest out of her career to create, this album was created in perhaps the shortest time in her career. Songs were recycled after not being used for (miss)understood, and some interludes were lengthened. From that description, “Secret” should have felt rushed, sloppy, and poorly designed.

Despite a few flaws, “Secret” does not feel like an album created for a specific date under constraints. Instead, the album performs as sturdy pop that withstands the test of time.

The album begins with the intro, “Not yet,” starting the musical experience out on an high note. This song alone best defines the album as a whole, starting slowly, but gaining momentum and power. The rock and synthetic elements are typical of Ayu rock, as well. Probably most evident in this track is the growing maturity and depth in her voice, why by the climax at the end leaves you wanting more.

“until that Day…” was originally an interlude. It starts out like one, but quickly evolves into an interesting rock track with fast paced and catchy vocals. This is one of the few tracks is of questionable quality on the album, but over all, it’s still very solid. Ayu’s vocals, although they do no do anything spectacular, are quite strong. It starts out as synthetic pop, typical of an interlude, then moves towards rocky, switches to regular guitar, then heads back to rocky for the finale. It’s similar instrumental wise to “Startin'” (but has a different range over all), but is a great lead into the strong pop-track “Startin'”, another standout for this album.

“Startin'” split the Ayu community when it was released, with its PV, message, and difference in composition. Never had Ayu made a track like this before, something very similar to what happened with “Bold & Delicious.” Nevertheless, Ayu rises to the occasion on this powerful pop rock track. The chorus is very catchy with her deep vocals, and the crescendo is certainly strong. The extro is superfluous, but “Startin'” is still one of the best tracks on the album.

“Startin'” leads into “1LOVE” which sure to be a fan-favorite. Ayu dabbled in rock back when she sang “I Am…”, mixing her high pitched vocals and fast beats to create irresistible rock. The song uses her deeper range to better mix with the dark rock, creating a very sharp ambience with power. The chorus lets Ayu’s voice go low and fast, and just sounds amazing. It’s catchy and great sounding all in one. Ayu’s English is near its best with “Just one love,” another catchy element of the song, besides the flowing chorus. The climax into the end is also very strong, as it rolls into the chorus and snowballs to end the song. Bravo on this one!

“It was” is a mellow track, that continues to be soft-spoken as even during the rock chorus. This song is nowhere near the rock powerhouse that “1LOVE” is, but nevertheless, the vocals attempt to show, and to a certain extent, contain a bit of emotion. This song may also be a favorite to people who enjoy her higher register, as Ayu avoids singing in her low throaty voice, even during the chorus. In the end, “It was” serves its job as a transition, but beyond that, not much else; it lacks the extra push the other songs had. However, Ayu’s vocals and emotions do propel it a ways above mediocrity at least.

“LABRYNTH” is fairly well created, with complexity in instrumentation to keep the listener, well, listening. It helps ease the transition into “JEWEL.”

Ayu has an undeniable gift when it comes to ballads. Year after year, she creates a new song that feels different and familiar all at once. “JEWEL” fits into that category and is easily one of the stand-out tracks of the album. It’s a great ballad featuring the piano, a bit of some synth beats, and a whole lot of emotion in Ayu’s voice. It’s strength lies in the lack of grand instrumentation. Opting for a spartan atmosphere, Ayu is backed by only a piano, her background vocals, and various background beats. Somehow, that sounds very full during the choruses, making “JEWEL” another must listen.

“momentum” is “M” reincarnated. Almost. Ayu’s vocals continue to be mature in this song, but aim on the higher end of the register. The violin is just great as it accompanies Ayu’s voice alongside a wintry synth atmosphere and piano intermingled with keyboards. The “M” comparisons are well deserved: “momentum” has the sweeping elements and emotion, then moves into the rock choruses. Once more, “Secret” impresses its depth upon the listener. The final bridge is just great and leads up into the finale that defines this song.

Another interlude so soon? “Taskint” is avoidable, as far as interludes go; it lacks complexity besides rough rock and bare keyboard elements. The track makes the album feel like it’s being stretched, which it is.

“Taskint” is really just the transition between the rock on “Secret” and the pop tracks featured on her singles. Right here, we shall see all cohesion in theme thrown out the window; these three songs do not belong with the songs we’ve just heard, mainly because they feel forced without adequate accompaniment on the album.

“Born to Be…” is a huge, grandstanding song that fills the room with lifting vocals, with Ayu backed by a whole choir. The instrumentation, highly based off of drumming, keyboards, samples of an audience, rock guitar and synthetic elements, is fast-paced. The song is a huge atmosphere and presence to contend with, created by the amalgam of vocals, background singing (very (miss)understood-esque), and instrumentation. It just feels bigger than just Ayu, something the chorus of “Born to Be…” gets across, while being quite catchy.

The pop slippery slope (which is quite enjoyable) continues as the album slides into “Beautiful Fighters” which is entirely synthetic, down to the editing of Ayu’s voice. The downside in the end is the lack of power and range of Ayu’s voice in the song; when the best part of her vocals in the song are the edited ones, it’s bad. Still, the song, although it’s completely a B-side, is another evolution of Ayu’s music.

“BLUE BIRD” is just good pop, best described as a faster version of “fairyland.” It has great synth, and harks back to older days in Ayu’s vocals. She sings in her upper register here, which probably made this song the most popular single of the year for Ayu.

“Kiss o’ Kill” features organs. And it kicks some serious booty doing so. As you get into the finale, you hear people screaming in the background (or cheering) and the instrumentals start switching back and forth between organs and rock. The finale has some great rock riffs as well. Kiss o’ Kill helps define this album. Listening the background people singing is interesting as well. It’s like a crowd of people. This song can be ecstasy at points due to the combination of power in organs and rock elements, alongside soaring vocals that are well backed.

“Secret.” The end as we know it. It features some strings that sound markedly like guitars. Perhaps this song comes closest to “JEWEL”‘s emotion (or even surpasses it). Both feature different kinds of simplicity, but yield an excellent ballad in doing so. “Secret” opts to build up as it moves along, crescendoing much more effectively than “JEWEL.” The orchestrated components along with the simple guitar and Ayu’s soft voice make an emotional ambience. It’s a bit of a bittersweet ending to the album, but still a great ending nonetheless.

This album finds itself in the tried and true territory of both “MY STORY” and “(miss)understood.” “Secret” has an abundance of strong album tracks that impress themselves on the listener, which while good, is not enough; none of the tracks are quite amazing to the point where some of the ones in her earlier career were. However, while “(miss)understood” was a strong album that displayed growth the likes of which we had never seen in Ayu’s music before, it was growth that relied on the crutch of Sweetbox, which hurt the album as a whole. At points, it came off a little bland or even worse, oddly. “MY STORY” did not fall into that trap, but not all of its tracks were as strong as “Secret”‘s. Sure, the single tracks stood out, as did a few notable album tracks, but there were quite a few boring tracks that served their role as filler. Secret may be better because it is both more mature than “(miss)understood” without Sweetbox and nary a moment is bland, but it cannot achieve the strength of her albums “Duty,” “Memorial Address,” “LOVEppears,” and “I Am…” because it lacks those pure hit songs.

Ayu is certainly the queen of J-pop. She has created yet another album worthy of being repeated into oblivion.

88% B+

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