2. (don’t) Leave me alone
3. talkin’ 2 myself
7. Together When…
8. Marionette -prelude-
10. The Judgement Day
12. MY ALL
14. untitled ~for her~
Ayumi Hamasaki released her ninth studio album, “GUILTY,” on January 1, 2008. With such a long discography, Ayu’s main job on this album was creating modern, relevant J-pop that sounded different from her earlier music, but did not alienate her earlier listeners.
“Mirror” is the intro for the album. It’s a great note to start the album off on. It starts out with synthetic elements and a jovial keyboard that eventually succumbs to guitar riffs. The riffs accompany a change in Ayu’s voice, a darkness and power that make this track a great listen even if it is short.
“(don’t) Leave me alone” is electronica tinged pop rock. The song has a very distinct flavor, probably most similar to Ayu’s “my name’s WOMEN.” When drawing that comparison between the songs, however, it becomes apparent that “my name’s WOMEN” is superior. Nevertheless, the production of “(don’t) Leave me alone” is solid, and the track sounds great with a chorus that is much fuller than the verses. The crescendo of the song, however, does not have the power Ayu’s songs normally have. For many, this distinct style has made the track a favorite. However, this style must contend with lack of vocal power, especially noticeable during the chorus, in the “(don’t) Leave me alone. The song comes out as sleek rock, but feels like it somehow just missed achieving greatness.
“talkin’ 2 myself” is rockier, edgier, and possibly better than “(don’t) Leave me alone.” Again, the comparison between the two comes down to style versus power. In “talkin’ 2 myself,” the melody of the chorus is much more memorable, and the intermingling of guitar riffs and keyboard effects create a very dark, enjoyable atmosphere. Ayu is very in tune with the instrumentals on this track, which is a definite strength. As the backing of the track grows in speed and intensity, so does Ayu. “talkin’ 2 myself” easily becomes the best rock song on the album because of its pure power and well-done production.
“decision” is another rock song, the B-side to “talkin’ 2 myself” on the single. It’s only suiting, then, that the two songs find themselves next to each other. It’s also fitting that “decision” is the weaker of the two tracks; they’re both rock, and despite a nice effort and nice vocals, the production and power in “decision” aren’t enough to compete with “talkin’ 2 myself.” Here, “decision” is still rock, but it doesn’t feel nearly as polished as “talkin’ 2 myself.” The violins and rock are nice, and Ayu does great singing, especially towards the end, but it’s not enough to make “decision” stand out.
“GUILTY” takes about 48 seconds to begin, and that feels much too long. The instrumentation at the beginning is pretty and builds to the vocals, but the line between beauty and boredom was crossed; the beginning could very well lull you into a slumber. With that long of an intro, the expectation becomes that this song will explode in intensity. Despite a pretty melody and piano element, the song never achieves greatness because it doesn’t climax well, thereby failing to meet the expectations set by the song itself. The song begins and ends as one. The song feels somewhat emotive, but cannot compare to “Together When…” The chorus on “GUILTY” sounds great, but just doesn’t have that much power.
If one track had to be pointed to as the worst song of the album, it may be “fated.” It’s just there as a ballad, which is not something listeners can often say about Ayu’s music. Her music always has that extra “umph” to it, but here on “fated” the music is just so-so, and there is no emotional climax. In the end, the problem with “fated” is that it is just average; average vocals, average lyrics, average intensity and average quality. One thing the song does well, however, is lead into “Together When…”
“Together When…” was an excellent choice for a pre-album digital release. The song is easily the best song Ayu has put out this year, putting her other songs to shame. The song grows well, seamlessly transitioning from a pretty, calm verse, to a powerful, large chorus. The verse itself has well-done lyrics that are both catchy and memorable. That combination, along with an elegant melody, make “Together When…” a top-notch ballad and the star of “GUILTY.” The ending is impressive, as well: as Ayu repeats her choruses twice, she contrasts a soft, emotive whisper with powerful, sorrowful vocals to create a great climax that leads into a great extro. If there was any doubt, it’s cleared up here: Ayu still has that capability to write great lyrics and put out great music.
“Marionette -prelude-” leads the listener right into the next track, “Marionette.” “Marionette” features interesting synthetic instrumentation that revolves around a piano backing. The feeling created is that the music flows as the song progresses. Almost like a stream of flowing water gaining momentum, the song transforms into a rock chorus. The rock of “Marionette” really gives it a lot of power and emotion that contrasts well with the eerie keyboards that both begin and end the track. A different song from Ayu that has style and depth.
If there was a short song that could have been made full-length to improve “GUILTY,” it would be “The Judgement Day” which has a techno beat and electronica feeling all at once. The power and feeling of the track are energetic and catchy. It’s a shame that style was never capitalized on this album, it could have really made a difference and improved “GUILTY.” Instead, the album took an emotional, rock edge, which Ayu has done before.
“glitter” transitions well from “The Judgement Day,” and serves as a great, happy pop rest from the rock on the rest of the album. The song features synthetic keyboard-based background instrumentation, a central beat, and layered background vocals that come together to create a larger than life song. The song is quite summery with its cheer, but doesn’t quite live up to the greatness of previous summer songs, including “BLUE BIRD.”
“My All” is mid-tempo pop that appears to be on the album because, well, there was too much rock. As pop, the song is light and fluffy and just plain catchy. It has a great beat and a good melody to boot. Nothing to complain about here – it’s just mid-tempo, and it might have felt better if it was upbeat. Still, it’s nice to hear something new and pop-centric from Ayu after “glitter.” The vocals are fine here, and the extro is just a bunch of “la la”s. “My All” is guilty pleasure, as it should be.
The tone of the album shift with “reBiRTH,” which transitions into “untitled ~for her~.” “untitled ~for her~” is a soft ballad that begins with violins, and features fairly spartan verses juxtaposed against rockier choruses backed by piano and violins. Over all, this is probably one of the better album tracks on the album; it’s done well and sounds well produced, with background vocals and instrumentation that take the song to the next level.
If you were holding out for the best Ayu album in a long time, then “GUILTY” will be a huge disappointment. It is not of high caliber, especially when compared to albums like “Duty” and “I am…” As such, “GUILTY” falls into the tier of albums occupied by “MY STORY,” making this album her worst since 2005. That doesn’t mean “GUILTY” is bad, it just means it isn’t breath-taking. The problem lies in the rock of the album coupled with weaker album tracks. Most of the album, the songs are there but not impressive, not powerful. When Ayu is on during the course of the album, she is on, putting out some her best music in quite some time. It’s just a shame to see good tracks mixed in with rubbish. Nevertheless, “GUILTY” has redeeming songs that do appeal to a variety of listeners. Often on the album, however, songs that some like completely alienate other fans. Still, for Ayu fans and J-pop fans alike, “GUILTY” is worth a listen, for even if the music isn’t Ayu’s best, it’s still a guilty pleasure to listen to one of J-pop’s best.