Sophomore album heads the right way

On his debut album, Progress Reports (2015), Eli Hsieh drew on the classic science-fiction story, Flowers For Algernon, in which the low-IQ protagonist, Charlie Gordon, records his progress as he undergoes an experimental cure to boost his intelligence - a procedure that succeeds spectacularly at first, but ultimately fails. It won the Taiwanese singer-songwriter the Best New Artist accolade at the Golden Melody Awards.

His follow-up record, Where Are We Going?, has been nominated in four categories at the same awards this year, including Album Of The Year and Best Male Mandarin Singer.

There are hints that he continues to be inspired by Flowers For Algernon. In the story, Alice Kinnian is Charlie's teacher and she grows to love him, a poignantly tragic affair.

There is a track here titled Ai Li Si, Chinese for Alice and, in fact, the album's full title in a mix of Chinese and English is Ai Li Si Where Are We Going? (even though the official English title is Where Are We Going?).

On the guitar-and-piano-driven Xuan Nao (Silence), Hsieh sings: "We're no longer ourselves/Can we return to the past/Let us remember the warmth, can we, no." This could well be about Charlie and Alice and the cruel realisation that undoing what has been done is impossible.

At other times, the singer seems to conflate Alice with another character, the one from Lewis Carroll's novels. There is a spoken-word track here called Tu Zi Dong, which means Rabbit Hole and one emerges from it ("Do you like who you are now?/What do you think is the meaning of your existence?") to reach Zui Xiang Dao Da De Di Fang (The Fearless Place), a rousing song that closes the album on a hopeful note.

There is a whiff of the strangeness of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland on Yi Shu Jia De Jia Qi (Artist's Vacation).

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Hsieh stretches himself vocally here, going from a soft, high whisper to impassioned belting. As violins swell, a Gothic contemplation on death and art: "No need to doubt, please die in peace/All the traces before death, pens dipped in blood/It's all evidence."

The album as a whole is harder to come to grips with compared with Progress Reports, but even if the answer to the title question is not always clear, it is still an intriguing enough journey to embark on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2019, with the headline 'Sophomore album heads the right way'. Print Edition | Subscribe