Asian crossovers into Western markets are a common thing in the modern age; whether it’s for further exposure or an emerging fan base in a foreign land. Utada Hikaru—Known professionally as Utada in English speaking countries—falls within the second category. Her pull in Japan is astounding; her debut album First Love sold 10 million copies across Asia—leaving it as the bestselling Asian album of all time—and she has a further two albums in Japan’s top ten bestselling albums, leaving it safe to say that she’s one of Japan’s most beloved musicians.
She initially found her foreign niche with the song Simple and Clean, which gained popularity through its use in the Disney-themed RPG Kingdom Hearts, and acted as her launching pad into America. As a New York native, with no accent in sight and complete command of the English language, an American debut made perfect sense; after signing with Island Records and spending two years writing and recording the album, Exodus was finally released in 2004. Even though it failed to garner much attention, peaking at #160 on the Billboard 200 charts, it stood out as a favourite among critics and stands out as a highlight of Utada’s career.
Without question, the immediate highlight of Exodus is its sheer versatility. Lead single Easy Breezy features a purposefully mainstream R&B pop production style that showcases her strong skills in both writing and producing for pop music, yet upon listening, the album almost immediately delves into stranger waters. Devil Inside tackles the dark side of UK house music head on, while Kremlin Dusk goes into experimental electronic territory, featuring lyrics referencing the works of Edgar Allan Poe and production that warps between eerie ambience, harpsichord solos and dark rock across an epic five minute soundscape. Even outside of these notable strange tracks, the album is dominated by a myriad of different experimental styles that tread the lines of R&B and synthpop, showcasing Utada’s mad scientist production style that she undertook through most of the album.
The often surprisingly blunt insight into Utada’s mind is the album’s main highlight lyrically, however, showcasing a side she was often unable to show in Japan. Sexuality is a common theme throughout, from the recounting of various phone sex encounters over the methodically sparse, raunchy backdrop of The Workout to detailing the struggles of an ongoing affair on the awkward and hesitant R&B track Tippy Toe. Even Hotel Lobby, while not sexually charged itself, compares Utada’s own closely guarded existence moving from hotel to hotel with that of a sex worker, hinting at desires for a similarly unprotected life. Yet despite the overt sexuality, the act isn’t outright mentioned until Let Me Give You My Love, the penultimate track that spells out what the previous twelve tracks were too afraid to say; the buzzing electronic background is simply the icing on top of an elegantly written account of her primal feelings.
There’s a counter to these moments of sexual tension, however. Exodus is deeply personal, with her marriage to her husband, Japanese director Kazuaki Kiriya, being a common theme throughout the album. Closing track About Me is essentially a catalogue of all her personal faults, questioning her husband’s decision to marry her so bluntly and painfully that it almost feels like an invasion of privacy. You Make Me Want To Be A Man takes a similar route, detailing her frustrations with the marriage and the way things are, to the point that she wishes to be a man to better understand his thought process. An entire track, Animato, is even dedicated to her personal manifesto, clearly depicting the exact type of man she desires and how she would like to be perceived by people. Every aspect of Utada’s psyche is on show here, with even the most unexpected tracks tying into her total personal experience.
The totally unabridged view of Utada that the album offers is what makes Exodus so fascinating, serving as a window into her worldview and mental state at the time. While it didn’t gather the success that Utada or her record label had hoped for, it stands as an intriguing relic of the Asian music market’s constant push for expansion, and even a landmark showing her movement from R&B pop to ethereal electronica in her own discography. From its blunt sexual moments to its shockingly upfront pleas for help, Exodus is a true gem of an album, ahead of its time and criminally under-appreciated.