There’s two things to keep in mind when reading my thoughts on Ayumi Hamasaki’s latest single(and 50th original single to chart in the top 10): I absolutely adore this woman and the biggest proportion of her output, particularly in the last few years. But as much as I love her, one thing I almost always hated were her winter single releases, of which this is the first in 5 years. So…how does it fare?
Shockingly well, I must say. Zutto… itself is probably the weakest track included, but if you judge a piece of work solely by what it intended to be(in this case, part of Ayumi’s attempt to rejuvenate her career), it’s very, very far from being a failure. It’s a soft, melancholic winter ballad, a marriage of extensive market research and a bunch of personality. There’s a very tangible emotional layer infused here, held together by the ambivalent nature of every aspect. It’s quite easy to feel this song, but very hard to put those feelings into words. And the chorus? Let’s just say it won’t leave your head anytime soon. For better or for worse.
Last minute, on the other hand, made Ayumi’s entire fanbase rejoice simultanously. It’s a throwback equally to her early, not so heavily orchestrated, rock ballads, and the rawer sound and feel she used to go for at times. It’s dynamic and intentionally unpolished, centered on a relatively untouched, highly expressive vocal recording and rough guitars to contrast against soft piano. Frankly, it kicks ass in every imaginable way – not least by showing off confident, powerful vocals previously unheard from Ayumi. One other thing is, unfortunately, in full display on Last minute: glaring production issues. If you are listening to this single on typical consumer level headphones that can be gotten for <$100, you aren’t likely to hear it, but anyone getting out a good, dynamic pair of over-ears will be exposed to a single that has been mastered in a way that just plain cuts off high frequencies. The songs themselves are mastered well – the one aspect I mind is the choice to use some static as an artistic choice in Last minute – but whoever mastered them for the CD(or Web download) messed up. Big time.
After a honestly frightful opening of La La Las, Walk quickly transforms into a heartwarming, traditional ballad. Simplicity is a strenght here, as the song goes through its memorable, never complicated melody and portrays an incredible optimism set against a grim backdrop of weeping strings and wintery bells that sound just a bit sinister. Zutto…‘s ambiguity comes into play again, though I’d personally say the smaller pretense of becoming a pop hit works in Walk‘s favour.
The single is tied together with a WINTER BALLAD MEDLEY, that could have turned out quite painful considering the quality and similar nature of most of those songs, but actually works out nicely. The songs aren’t remixed or blended together in particularly interesting ways, but the choice of songs is quite surprising and most of the songs are kept short enough to stop them from revealing their full blandness.
Zutto…/Last minute/Walk is a great single if you can look past some serious production mistakes, easily Ayumi’s best winter ballad single, but the real strength of it lies in the genius move of even just releasing it. Ayumi’s career is at a turning point, her public image is changing at an incredible pace as she is slowly but surely rebuilding and reclaiming – and there could have been no better way to re-introduce Ayumi’s ballad skills to the public after a 5 year break from winter singles than a single that takes three generic ballad archetypes and makes the BEST out of them without ever churning out a replacable song. There are big emotions on this single, impressive, memorable melodies – instant classics. Add one fantastic music video and you got yourself a great christmas present.