“Lonely, But Not Alone”: Walking the Road With Utada Hikaru

Utada opens ‘Fantôme’ with a pulsating, reassuring ode to recovery.

I walk this lonely road, the only one that I have ever known…

It’s somewhat of a coincidence that, one decade ago, Utada Hikaru sang those words in a cover of Green Day‘s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” just a few years before announcing her extended hiatus away from the music scene.

Hikki’s personal navigation system is back on track with “Michi” (“Road”) — but this isn’t exactly a joyride.

We’ve established by now that Fantôme, Utada’s first Japanese studio album since 2008’s HEART STATION, is in large part a tribute to her late mother Keiko Fuji, who tragically committed suicide in 2013.

This record — everything we’ve seen and heard thus far, from the album cover, which eerily resembles her mother, to the heartbreaking lyricism — holds a mirror to Utada’s grieving process. The two songs that arrived earlier this year, “Hanataba wo Kimi ni” and “Manatsu no Tooriame,” signaled a shift toward something tender and traditional sounding; light musically, tear-soaked thematically.

“Michi” is the opening song on Fantôme, and is, essentially, the sound of recovery…or at least acceptance, the final stage of the grieving process.

As explained in her first interview since announcing the record, it’s a “danceable” song, meant to “reiterate that she is doing okay.”

Musically, “Michi” is somewhat surprising to hear following the more muted tone of the tracks we’ve received thus far, playing instead like a continuation of 2010’s “Goodbye Happiness,” even down to similar-sounding melodies. (That song’s message, by the way, feels prophetic in retrospect: “When people become alone, they realize the meaning of love.”)

But there are thumping, club-ready pulsations at work on “Michi,” propelling the production ahead, as though physically pushing her to keep going, providing the ever-so-slightest of nods to her early experimental electronica of Exodus, a la “Devil Inside.”

Ostensibly, “Michi” could go off (awf) in the club as a celebration of self-empowerment — but unlike those Top 40 hits wrapped around flimsy, aggressively positive fist-pumping cliches, this one is vastly more grim.

And a deeper dive into the lyrics may result in some teardrops on the dance floor.

Across the black waves, I begin to feel a hint of the morning
An undying star begins to shine in my heart
Even sad songs will turn into nostalgic songs one day
An invisible scar colors my soul

Even when I stumble, I get up
When I get lost, I stand still, and ask:
If it was you, what would you do?

You are inside my heart
I always walked this road thinking it was on my own,
But the beginning was actually you.

It’s lonely, it’s lonely, it’s lonely, it’s lonely
But I’m not alone, not alone, not alone, not alone, not alone
That’s my mood.

Translation via UBlog

And there it is: optimism — at least, faintly, poking through the darkness.

Intriguingly, she opts for the use of English in the chorus, which she intentionally shied away from for her Fantôme song titles. (Can we also talk about the crossover with Britney Jean‘s “Alien”? “Not alone, not alone, not alone…” — my two beloveds, connected in their own somber way.)

You are inside my heart / I still don’t know where this road leads / But I bet you’re there.

This song is a reassurance, not only to her fans that she’s doing okay, but a reminder to herself that the Fantôme is within. She’s lonely, but not alone, as she goes traveling (REFERENCE) down this path to the unknown — and hey, she might even eventually break into a little dance on the way.

Sweat. Cry. Scream. Cry.

You are every song, every song, every song…” Gulp.

God knows, she’s doing her best. がんばって, Hikki.


“Michi” will be released on September 16. Until then, check out the radio rip above.

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