Divas dig deeper

Sandy Lam's (right) 12th Mandarin release is titled 0 and Jolin Tsai's (left) 14th studio album is called Ugly Beauty.
Sandy Lam's (right) 12th Mandarin release is titled 0 and Jolin Tsai's (left) 14th studio album is called Ugly Beauty. PHOTOS: SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT, UNIVERSAL MUSIC

Sandy Lam delivers a cohesive album building on the Earth Mother vibe, and Jolin Tsai puts out a playful, edgy dance record

Two divas make a long-awaited return to the music scene following their last award-winning albums. Their new records are very different but very good.

Hong Kong-based Sandy Lam's last Mandarin album Gaia (2012) won four Golden Melody Awards, including for Best Female Mandarin Singer and Best Mandarin Album. While it featured a distinct Earth Mother vibe, there was also the sense that she was straddling more experimental music and more commercial fare.

The new record 0, her 12th Mandarin release, feels more cohesive, with her clear-as-a-bell voice breathing life into a crop of songs dusted with electronica.

It opens with Breathe In... Breathe Out - one of two English numbers - a piano-backed track for which Lam co-wrote the music and lyrics.

Her pipes have a moving delicacy and beauty as she sings meditatively: "Each day that I wake up I tell myself/Breathe in breathe out/ Each day that I wake up I start again/Breathe in breathe out."

Some of that Earth Mother vibe resurfaces on 0, with references to trees, mountains, rivers and ants. Solar System goes further as she delves into the cosmos: "The life force from light/The one and only you."

Some of the loveliest tracks here are effortlessly exquisite.

Qian Wei, which is titled Angels in English, is about the ache of longing: "Are there enough memories to weave into a blanket." While Morning Light is about the bliss of love: "Wild flowers are ostentatious/Sparrows are flying/We are in love again."

The philosophy of living in the now comes full circle at the end with the Mandarin version of Breathe In... Breathe Out, Yi Hu... Yi Xi.

  • ELECTRONIC POP

  • Sandy Lam's (above) 12th Mandarin release is titled 0 and Jolin Tsai's (left) 14th studio album is called Ugly Beauty.

    0

    Sandy Lam

    Universal Music

    4 stars

  • DANCE POP

  • Sandy Lam's (above) 12th Mandarin release is titled 0 and Jolin Tsai's (left) 14th studio album is called Ugly Beauty.

    UGLY BEAUTY

    Jolin Tsai

    Sony Music Entertainment

    4 stars

At this stage of her long and storied career, Lam's music is more intimate than ever, an inward journey that is both revealing and rewarding.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai digs deep as well after Play (2014), which won the dance-pop queen her first Golden Melody Award for Best Mandarin Album.

Where once she sang cheerily about plastic surgery in Kan Wo 72 Bian (Magic) ("Make the nose higher, so the air is fresh") - and was herself the subject of rife speculation whether she had gone under the knife - the artist now embraces herself fully.

She sings on Ugly Beauty, which she co-wrote: "Who dares to set the standards of beauty/Who I wanna be today/It all depends on me."

Her self-confidence comes through clearly. In Necessary Evil, with its ominous synthesizers, she lays it out: "Who's a witch, I'm cold therefore I'm beautiful/Only I can see clearly the shape of my soul."

And her advice on the groovy Womxnly: "Don't let anyone change you."

There is an edginess and playfulness here spilling over from her last record on tracks such as Lady In Red, in which she riffs on the scarlet hue and its multitudinous associations: "I am fresh blood, I am fire, I represent danger/I am tears, red-rimmed eyes."

She would rather tell it like it is on her 14th studio album, even if it might raise an eyebrow or two, with much of the material draped in dance floor-friendly tunes.

Life Sucks does not hold back: "Horoscope for the year not too good, treat it like taking a dump."

And she gets her sexy on for Sweet Guilty Pleasure as she teases: "I enjoy every detail of your desire/ Love the lump in your throat as you furtively swallow your saliva."

It all flows smoothly and makes for one compelling Ugly Beauty.

• Watch the music videos for Sandy Lam's Angels at bit.ly/2CW8IbY and Jolin Tsai's Ugly Beauty at bit.ly/2DI1slT

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2019, with the headline 'Divas dig deeper'. Print Edition | Subscribe