Jakarta-based writer who frequently writes about music, pop culture and social commentary
The cover art for Anggun's latest release, '8' (April Earth/Universal Music Indonesia/File)
As Indonesia’s biggest music export, the conversation around Anggun seems to stagnate at her success in carving out (and subsequently maintaining) an illustrious career beyond the national frontier, even 20 years into her métier as a singer-songwriter in the Anglophone and Francophone markets.
Branching out into the realms of modeling, activism and television for the better part of her career – notwithstanding her current judging stint in the highly popular Asia’s Got Talent serving as something of a late career revival — has further veered the focus away from her oeuvres and her sorely overlooked cachet as one of pop music’s most commendable and versatile forces.
Her latest full-length release, 8 (April Earth/Universal), might refer to the number of albums she has put out in English and/or French in the past two decades, but it could also symbolize coming full circle on her artistic front.
As the project’s chief wordsmith, many of the tracks find the former lady rocker engaging in self-relection, with lyrics alluding to past hits and deep album cuts. This is already evident in the lead single, the breezy, folky “What We Remember”, a meditation on impermanence. This treatment is not dissimilar to “Only Love” from 2011’s Echoes, a stroke of mid-career brilliance that saw the singer dabbling in a more organic, rockier edge, but in a club-ready, beefed-up reconfiguration that would not sound out of place sandwiched between the Chainsmokers and the Kygos of the world.
The bulk of 8 seems to center around amping up the pop ante by marrying Anggun’s direct, effective songwriting with modern musical parlance. There’s a millennial whoop in the opener “No Promises”, a feminist, realistic look at modern coupling, as well as in “Inhuman”, virtually a sister track to “Human” from 2005’s Luminescence, which is still the songstress’s most definitive work to date. Meanwhile, the dubstep in “Forget Her” could have been lifted from The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness.
Elsewhere is the classic Anggun balladry, such as in the ruefully detailed kiss-off anthem “The Good is Back”, which starts off with a startlingly honest and detailed resolution: “Congratulations you have the flat / You keep the car / I keep the cat”. Album closer and concert sing-along material “Thank You” features stripped-down excellence, while “Oceans”, the album’s most oddball track, features the autobiographical lines, “I'm still deep down a Javanese woman / Who's always smiling”, and quasi-rapping over a Serge Gainsbourg-like backdrop, buoyed by twinkling piano riffs, funky guitar lines and laid-back drums.
Co-written with German musician and life partner Christian Kretschmar, it is puzzling why the two didn’t write more songs for 8, as the album could have benefited from similarly unexpected, out-of-the-box excursions. Equally puzzling is why none of the tracks that were concocted with British production team Metrophonic, whose previous clients include Cher and Kylie Minogue, appear in the final product, despite the widely reported and documented collaboration.
In fact, as Anggun herself revealed, she simply sent off all of her lyrics to the album’s composers to construct the music around her scribing. This hands-off approach may be a surprising move from an artist who once reportedly put up the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the studio doors to avoid interference from label execs. What with her recent surge in popularity, it was almost a given that her sound would have to reflect the stature of her public persona.
It is somewhat unfortunate, however, that flirting with current trends means dialing down on the quirks that typically mark Anggun’s brand of pop: a masterful blend of disparate musical elements that translates into a beguiling melting pot of sounds, textures and influences from the East and the West.
But even when she treaded uncharted territory — such as in the R&B and hip-hop-leaning Open Hearts (2002) and Elevation (2008) – there was still a real sense of zest and exploration, a commitment to the aesthetic that may not have always worked, but was still admirable even when it erred.
Much of this is largely absent from 8: despite its big pop moments with an even bigger bid for commercial success, the album feels strangely half-baked or even neutered at times. This is not to refute its sheer enjoyability — any discerning pop enthusiast will tell you it’s still a solid body of work with good replay value — but when stacked against some of its maker’s career highs, not much of 8 is actually capable of joining their ranks.
Then again, perhaps 8 merely seeks to bridge the past and the present: after many years of playing the underdog on the pop scene (not to mention being subject to mismanagement, label screw-ups and missed opportunities), it is perfectly understandable that Anggun now has her eye on the mainstream prize with a sharp, all-out focus. The big-budget visual for “What We Remember” also drives this point further home.
Of course, there is nothing fundamentally wrong about wanting to claim your just rewards, especially when you can pull off the winning trick as she does here with the mid-section trio of the big singles “Righteous”, “Alive” and “Medicine & Meditation”. It is probably no coincidence that these three tracks embody the ghost of Luminescence with crunchy guitars, big drums and soaring melodies, with multiple references to that album’s lyrics.
With success and recognition for 8 looming on the horizon (and may it also extend to her vast, wide-ranging back catalog), Anggun would likely not be pressured into playing the crowd-pleasing game to make a grand return to her inspired and intriguing form. After all, to quote the album’s opening line, she’s "not your typical girl". (kes)
Fajar Zakhri is a Jakarta-based writer who frequently writes about music and pop culture, social commentary and personal reflections on issues that concern and/or affect him in general. He has been featured in a number of international publications, such as The Guardian, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and Autostraddle, among others, as well as written for Magdalene, Rappler Indonesia and most notably Globetrotter, where he currently works. Get in touch with him via Twitter (@whatsthefaz).
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