Even after Wakana’s second album was released, I realised that I couldn’t listen to it properly until I had gathered my thoughts on her first one.
Although I liked her debut, I wanted to like it more than I did: it’s mostly ballads with little up-tempo content, so it sounds pleasant but rather bland. During the Kalafina years she was considered to be a specialist in slow, operatic songs, which is natural I suppose when her voice has an inherent silky smoothness and heart-tugging tension that lend themselves well to the melancholic and introspective tracks rather than upbeat ones.
While playing the role of “tragic-sounding mezzo-soprano” was fine at the time, it was also limiting, which didn’t help her when she started to promote herself as a solo performer. She needed to try new ways of expressing herself on her own terms: not just the melancholic voice singing someone else’s songs.
This is why, even when the solo album wasn’t doing much for me, I felt that it was an important first tentative step of her journey as an artist. In that sense, the quality of the songs themselves isn’t the only thing that matters: it’s a record that she simply needed to make in order to give herself her own identity, even if it didn’t capture every aspect of her off-stage personality straight away. Her situation is a tricky one, and I’m not sure that many fans have realised that.
On one hand, she had the benefit of already being a well-known name in the industry. There’s still demand from fans to hear the stuff she used to sing at concerts, and her reputation is valuable from a promotional point of view as well. With a solid fanbase, she was in a better position than a newbie starting his or her career from scratch.
At the same time, it presented a problem that a completely unknown artist wouldn’t have: long-standing listeners would compare her solo songs against what she had worked on previously. As tempting as it is, I tried as hard as I could to avoid doing that because it’s unhelpful and unfair for a number of reasons.
Firstly, she’s now creating her own songs: she wrote many of the lyrics herself, rather than interpreting what someone else had written. Even if the end result isn’t as much to my liking as what she’s done before, the fact that it’s more *hers* is worth bearing in mind when judging it.
Secondly, she was part of an established band whose line-up was consistent, accustomed to working together, and each with their individual defined roles. At the time of her solo album being recorded, I suspect that the agency staff (and perhaps the studio techs too) were the same, but the co-writers and supporting musicians were new. Sure, she had been working in the music business for a decade prior, but that was the first year that this particular band were recording and performing together.
Thirdly: in terms of vocals, Wakana had a very specifically-defined role and for ten years had been tailoring her ranges of pitch and expression to that. In recent interviews she explained that her singing style is evolving, and I would’ve been surprised and rather concerned if it wasn’t. I suspect that she is now discovering, and having to work on, aspects of her vocal performance that she never needed to give much attention to until now. There are aspects to her voice, such as the lower registers in particular, that she rarely used before; simply because Hikaru and Keiko used cover those areas when Kalafina were performing and recording.
I’m reluctant then to shout about my criticisms of her first album too much because I feel I can understand where the flaws come from. It’s not surprising that someone’s first attempt at writing song lyrics isn’t as great as someone who’s been doing it for years. Or that the songs are middle-of-the-road ballads, because that’s what she feels most comfortable performing, especially when there aren’t two other vocalists to harmonise with. Or that a solo debut record is mainstream-sounding when the artist has the weight of expectations while at the same time working on a blank slate with a support network that is smaller and unfamiliar.
It’s easy to assume that, because she has years of industry experience already, Wakana should be able to deliver the goods straight away and that it’s a serious failing on her part if she doesn’t. The reality is rather different: if music is a continuously-evolving form of an artist’s expression rather than merely a manufactured product for the fans, it’s always a work in progress. It was only when I was able to accept these issues with her first album that I felt ready for her second.