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Day 44: Jolin Tsai – “MUSE” (2012)
Genre: Pop / Dance
Tracklist: 大藝術家 / Dr.Jolin / 迷幻 / 十三號星期舞 / Beast / 柵欄間隙偷窺你 / 彩色相片 / 詩人漫步 / 有人 / 馬賽克 / 我
In the world of Mandopop, Jolin Tsai is a force to be reckoned with. Occasionally likened to a Britney Spears with a less messy career, Jolin has dominated the scene for just about 15 years now, preparing a new fall release at the moment. So while waiting for her new album, it’s time to revisit 2012’s MUSE!
MUSE opens on the lead single 大藝術家, a song with a powerful, punctuated dance beat undercut by driven guitar lines. The chorus adds some synths and a Europop melody, but stays close to the main stylistic choices. 大藝術家 is an example of how great vocoded, heavily processed vocals can be when they are not just used as convenient way to mask a lack of vocal talent. It displaces the vocal line, adds a sense of the alien that adds to the odd, but highly appealing sound of 大藝術家, overall a highly memorable pop single. Just listen to that final breakdown and the way it ties into the chorus, it’s fantastic.
Someone really likes the throwback late 90s/early 00s Europop style! Dr.Jolin takes it to its pinnacle, dropping a clean pop melody into an ocean of delicious synths. The chorus, employing a repetitive vocal sample as part of the melody, may be a bit overly simplistic, but one could argue that’s the very thing that makes it so effective. The production is exactly what you would expect, the delivery fun but not too personal – it’s just all around competent and delivers.
迷幻 almost has a sense of house, excelling at very thing many European and American pop stars have tried around the time of its release, but most never did well. If you’re looking for an actual good version of the songs you’ve been hearing on the radio, 迷幻 invites on a journey, part ethereal, part powerful, but all around exceedingly good dance pop.
A distinct Disney pop vibe is given off by 十三號星期舞, a much weaker, but still enjoyable song. Jolin’s light, warm vocals make this song work – just barely. The use of EDM and Dubstep elements specifically seems very rough and almost infantile, lacking any type of purpose.
Beast, being a heavily stylized, dark track characterized by chants, vocoding and a general low soundscape, serves to remind us that Jolin can adapt to a variety of pop styles. There’s sensuality there, but a kind of tainted, forbidden sensuality. I find the melody itself a bit dull, but the arrangement, production and delivery more than just makes up for it.
I love playful songs that manage to stick to a certain level of style, not dropping into childish territory in the middle of a record produced for teenagers and young adults. 柵欄間隙偷窺你 is such a song, combining pop with a tiny little hint of swing. It’s incredibly optimistic and heaps of fun. A short, but sweet album highlight.
As much as I love Jolin’s uptempos, her ballads usually signify a sharp decline in quality for me. Sadly, MUSE is no exception. The 5 ballads that follow just feel like one long, disappointing song, and as such, I will review them in one go rather than spending a paragraph on each track – there’s really not enough to say about the individual songs. The production is always adequate, the melodies aren’t ugly or distracting, but every one of the 5 ballads lacks any sense of individuality or genuine emotional power. They are all by-the-numbers generic pop ballads, no defining factors, no spectacular arrangements, no gorgeous displays of emotion or skill. They just are. And they pull down the album – a lot. 有人 is slightly surprising by actually having a high tempo, but aside from that shows the same features and aesthetics. It’s flavourless and bland. Not intruding as background noise, but not interesting enough to be listened to actively either.
MUSE exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses in Jolin’s entire career. When she produces upbeat dance tracks, those usually end up being expertly crafted, incredibly catchy and more danceable than most other “dance” music out there. She outshines most other Pop stars in that department. But once her scope switches to ballads, she is just tiresome. I realize this type of ballad is pretty much essential for an artist to be popular in the Mandopop industry, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticize it on an artistic and technical level. As a business strategy? Jolin and her team are doing everything right. On a quality level? There’s very, very high highs – and rather low lows.