Album Review: Sui Zhen - Secretly Susan (2015 LP)

In Sui Zhen’s Secretly Susan, slanted electro-pop meets creative zeal, and it’s kind of wonderful. The entire album is drenched in gentle summer breeze, clear blue-sky imagery and at its whimsical best simply floats and flutters from note to note. But there’s so much more than meets the eye with Sui Zhen, the alias of Melbourne-based artist Becky Sui Zhen, including an uncanny ability to find musical and conceptual clarity where many others wouldn’t bother to look.

This is a delightfully unique album, as little jazzy ditties ("Dear Teri") sit next to drowned out dream pop ("Going Away"), topped off with the tropical dub vibes of a song like "Safari". This track list carries with it the feeling of a long road taken, a process of chopping and changing, cutting and pasting—trial and error—to find the right sound, aesthetic and artistic stamp. Zhen has been performing in various line ups for over 10 years, formerly collaborating with fellow electronic innovator Andras Fox in Fox + Sui, whom she happened to meet as part of the Red Bull Music Academy. She also provides vocals and percussion to local ‘heat beat’ band No Zu, and her current live band Sui et Sui boasts members of Hot Palms (Alex Marshall) and Totally Mild (Ashley Bundang). In 2014 she released two EP’s, in Female Basic and Body Reset, under the Sui Zhen moniker. As I said: a long (and colourful) road taken, but with the final product Secretly Susan, the right one none the less.

Beyond the wealth of sounds and musical stimuli that each track brings to the fore, Zhen’s voice is the lead component. It’s the shaping instrument, subtle in its different forms, yet malleable and elastic so that it’s always on point, and always inventively sweet. In "Infinity Street" Zhen’s vocals roll off with an RnB, pop diva attitude, yet are never too conventional or customary. Without having an overly strong voice, Zhen owns her words and in isolation fills out the space with clever intonation, tone and pacing. “Set out on the road just like any other day/Filled my fuel and I’m going away/Driving down the sun is high/Are you coming for a ride?,” she sings. Such simple words are felt with interest.

Lyrically, Secretly Susan is multifaceted and joyfully diverse. Just as Zhen shapes her music with ease, so too can she grapple with feelings of loss in "Never Gone" (“Losing out on everything/But not because I didn’t act carefully/And did you ever lose something/And you swear that you looked everywhere”) and by contrast, relive the hot weather of good days past in "Teenage Years".

The production on Secretly Susan is crystal clear and polished, which is how it needs to be. "Take It All Back" is 80’s-inspired synth-pop that has the beautiful synth hook and seductive harmony of a radio-friendly hit. It reverberates warmth with vocal layering, flickers of synth, keyboard, and minimal percussion; it’s a huge sound created through crafty songwriting and a refined ear. In opener "Teenage Years" there is a genuine sense of being submerged in water, swayed and pushed in and out with the tide, each note and beat cascading, rippling, and petering out.

Sui Zhen paints pictures with her music, ones that on the surface can seem ill-fitted and distorted, but are in fact made beautiful by their difference and, in doing so, carry a creative mystique and charm of their very own. There is enough here to be instantly hooked, and more leftover to ease into, to appreciate over time and to grow to love. Secretly Susan is an album worth coming back to, again and again.

Review Score: 8.3 out of 10

Secretly Susan is out now.