Throwback Thursday: Ayumi Hamasaki – Duty

Welcome to the second instalment in a series of Throwback Thursday highlighting the career of J-Pop superstar, Ayumi Hamasaki!

Recently, I took a look at Ayu’s 1999 album LOVEppears; a dance-heavy pop album with several well-loved standout tracks. This time, I’ll be shining the spotlight on the standout tracks from her follow-up, Duty, released in September of 2000.

Unsure about her new image and feeling the pressure from the success of LOVEppears, Ayu admitted that working on Duty was a nerve-wracking experience.   The turbulence of this period in her career is reflected in the lyrics of many of Duty‘s songs, most notably in the trilogy of the vogue, Far away and SEASONS singles.

vogue was the first single released from the album, and is described as an expression of Ayu’s present, Far away and SEASONS representing her past and future respectively.

Essentially a classic J-Pop song, vogue weaves poetic, lightly melancholic lyrics with dreamy, layered instrumentation. It also makes use of a constant, driving percussion that gives the impression that the song is gradually moving towards her future.

The lyrics speak of confronting the past with a realistic attitude, but no regrets, something to which I think anyone can easily and instantly relate to. Even though they’re obviously a reflection of her own feelings at the time, Ayu’s lyrics really make you feel like every song was written just for you.

For some reason this song’s production always reminded me of the Aquatic Zone music in Sonic 2. Anyone else? Just me? Alright then…

Stepping back into the past, Far away takes us back to the period when the singer wasn’t so comfortable with events in her life. The song addresses loss and the inability to come to terms with a fresh absence. Highlighting this, the instrumentation, a conflicting mix of orchestral and electronic sounds, fluctuates and changes with Ayu’s own conflicting emotions. The melody meanders in and out, punctuated by a wild guitar solo.

Personally, of the Duty singles trilogy I find Far away to be the lesser track. But I feel it should be included in order to fully express the core of the album’s overall theme of figuring out who you really are, and what you’re living for.

The repeating closing sounds of Far away lead straight into SEASONS, the final part of the Duty singles trilogy, and the song representing Ayu’s future.

Undeniably one of her most respected and long-standing ballads, SEASONS has been an enduring favourite with fans and the general public since its release. Not least in part due to its upfront lyrics, which deal with the uncertainty of young adult life in what is supposed to be an exciting new era with raw honesty.

If LOVEppears showed us the excitement and apprehensions of the approaching new millennium, then SEASONS is direct in its disillusionment with an underwhelming reality. Once again, many of us can relate with this kind of sobering hopelessness. I believe Ayu’s ability to tap into such deeply-held feelings within so many of us is what makes her such a popular artist, particularly with respect to her ballads.

Allow me to express my bias for a moment, because I have to say that SURREAL is definitely one of my favourite tracks from Duty. In fact, it’s one of my favourite tracks from Ayu’s entire career and I’ve worn it out with replays.

SURREAL is just so effective at expressing the inner turmoil we’ve all experienced where we don’t quite know what we want to do, but we’re overflowing with energy about what we wish we could be doing. At least, that’s the impression I get from it. Pile all that lyrical craziness onto a lively beat and crunchy guitars, and you have a cracker of a song.  It perfectly encapsulates that feeling of being adrift without a cause while life continues to happen around you. I love it.

I wanted to include a bit about Duty‘s final single, AUDIENCE, here as well. Unfortunately, it was one of Ayu’s few single releases to never have a music video filmed for it, so I’m unable to link it for you here. I will say though that it is a charming up-tempo song well-represented by its mildly cheesy TV advertisement here:

AUDIENCE is an energetic dance track that shows a jaded and pessimistic Ayu, somewhat coming to terms with what is laid in front of her and adopting a “let’s make the best of it” attitude, towards her present circumstances.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that the song is broadly optimistic – it still retains the confusion and general lack of focus that defines Duty as an album – but it does position the singer as determined to face life head-on, regardless of what it may bring. All of that is wrapped in a neatly produced package that has served as a solid concert get-em-out-of-their-seats song for the past decade.

Plus, you just can’t beat a tune with handclaps. That’s just pop music science.

Thanks for reading the series so far! Next TBT I’ll be discussing the highlights of what I and many others regard as Ayu’s best ever release, the sumptuous 2002 album I am…

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