A Dancing Van Gogh something to cheer about

POPA DANCING

VAN GOGH

Stefanie Sun

Universal Music

4 stars

When the first single, A Dancing Van Gogh, dropped, I was not quite sure what to make of it. One friend remarked that it was "super offbeat" and that not many Mandopop singers could pull it off. Another thought it was terrible.

It was certainly an unlikely choice to herald the release of a new album by home-grown Mandopop queen Stefanie Sun following 2014's Kepler and last year's EP Rainbow Bot.

Neither a conventional ballad nor an out-and-out dance number, A Dancing Van Gogh references the famous Dutch artist and his paintings to a mysterious end. There is a breathy edge to Sun's familiar pipes in the languorous opening couplet: "Sunflowers, golden like fire/Doing away with being wrapped by sunlight."

This could be a fever dream as suggested by the enigmatic music video of shifting identities and the bridge in the song: "The Starry Night spins me around/Sorrow and merriment roam all over/I can't bear to, don't want to wake up". It builds to a dramatic chorus, with even a choir chiming in eventually.

What it undoubtedly was was attention-grabbing. The track topped the iTunes chart in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore and the music video has chalked up more than 1.1 million views on YouTube.

It still has not quite grown on me, but it suggests that Sun is open to taking risks in her choice of material, which is something to cheer about for an established star.

The question was whether this signalled a completely new direction for the record as a whole, say, the way Tanya Chua went electronica on Aphasia (2015). Perhaps to the relief of her fans, the answer is no.

After all, she works with several familiar names here. Taiwanese singer-songwriter Hush, who penned the track Kepler, writes the lyrics for The Brighter The Day, The Darker The Night and Everyday Happiness.

Also contributing to the album are her regular collaborators, local songwriting-producing twins Lee Shih Shiong - who composed some of her best-known hits such as Cloudy Day, Green Light and Magical - and Wai Shiong, who, not to be outdone, has composed My Desired Happiness, Kite and Angel's Fingerprints, among others.

Between them, they wrote the music for half the album, tailored to her distinctive, versatile voice. Their songs include the standout poignant number Wind Jacket ("Flying pages of a calendar/Cut and assembled into a wind jacket").

Elsewhere, Sun displays an aching vulnerability on the ballad A State Of Bliss, while she gets to rock out in the exploratory Floating Islands and the rollicking Oxygenation Period.

Several of the songs are about the passage of time and of people who come and go. But in the midst of change and upheaval, there is also constancy.

Sun sings in the spare closing ballad Extremely Beautiful, for which she penned the lyrics: "Because no matter how cold the wind blows, the umbrella is by my side/Even if the jacket is old, it'll still keep the chill at bay".

While A Dancing Van Gogh is not quite as immediate as some of her previous releases, a new album from a well-loved singer can still be a source of comfort.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'A Dancing Van Gogh something to cheer about'. Print Edition | Subscribe