Hikaru Utada
Photo: Courtesy of Milan Records

Hikaru Utada’s ‘Bad Mode’ Is an Energetic Homage to Millennium Disco-Pop

A great dance-pop record is a marriage of great songs, appealing vocals, and innovative production. Hikaru Utada’s Bad Mode fits that bill. It’s a classy and elegant affair.

Bad Mode
Hikaru Utada
Milan Records
19 January 2022

For their eighth studio LP, Bad Mode, Hikaru Utada celebrates the frisky, fun dance-pop of the 1990s and early 2000s influenced by disco and soul-pop. For over 25 years, they were a leading voice in R&B-flecked J-Pop, citing artists like Aaliyah as an influence, which is very evident in the music of Bad Mode. You can also hear other influences of soul-inspired dance-pop like Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, or Mariah Carey.

So, it seems fitting that so much of Bad Mode sounds like it came out in the late 1990s when Utada became a massive star with their 1999 debut First Love (which sold an astounding 11 million copies). The New York-born pop vet came of age during an exciting time in pop music when divas ruled the charts with glittery, big-budgeted records. But what is striking about Bad Mode is that despite sounding like a late 1990s, early 2000s album, it doesn’t feel dated; in fact, it comes across as remarkably fresh and quite lovely.

Utada was wise to open their record with the title track, a smooth dance track that breezes easily on a smooth disco beat. Working with British DJ and producer Floating Points, Utada recalls that fantastic summer dance hit that would blast out of everyone’s car radio in 2000. Shepherd’s interest in jazzy soul is repped with some fabulous horns. It’s a great tribute to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Shepherd’s and Utada’s affection for disco is evident in the excellent “Somewhere Near Marseilles”, which sports a muted house beat and subtle electronic flourishes that frame Utada’s sweet croon. Shepherd’s other collaboration with Utada is the smooth ballad with a fantastic throwback feeling as if it was written for high school senior dances. Shepherd and Utada create a swirling, full sound that revels in the splendor found in lush pop.

The other producers of note that work with Utada on Bad Mode include Poo Bear and Grammy-winning Skrillex. Their collaboration, “Face My Fears”, is a skittery, EDM-styled ballad. The song’s production has sonically interesting tricks like scissoring synths that cut throughout the tune; it stops and starts, allowing for a piano ballad to creep through, as well. Utada’s vocals also are all over the place on this track. Sometimes it’s powerful and unadorned, accompanied by a sole piano, but at other times, it’s shredded, mutilated, and processed to melt with the rest of the busy production. Despite the jerky structure of the song, it’s still very catchy.

Though Utada’s influence is largely American-style urban-dance music, they could put out a British-focused dance record because of the natural chemistry with the UK-based producers on the album. Floating Points is a great partner, as is his fellow Brit, A.G. Cook, who, like Shepherd, hears Utada through a Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis filter. Their song together, “Kimi ni Muchū”, is an undulating dance song with a haunting hook that recalls the theme from The X-Files.

When Utada channels Kylie Minogue with the excellent, glassy house-pop strutter, “Find Love” they show off an ingenious talent for taking their listeners on a fun dance party (the chorus and background vocals are on fire on this track). It’s a high point on an album full of them. The slower moments in Bad Mode pull some of the refreshing energy, but even they are immaculately produced pop filler. Utada sounds best when their voice is matched with glossy beats. A great dance-pop record is a marriage of great songs, appealing vocals, and innovative production. Bad Mode fits that bill. It’s a classy and elegant affair.

RATING 8 / 10