Review Summary: She don’t need no rescue when she’s okay.
Incredibly, even before the release of Nocturnal
, 2013 was already shaping up to be an absolutely massive year for Malaysian singer-songwriter Yunalis Zara’ai. The wildly successful Sixth Street EP
, released in April, was emphatically followed by debut performances on the Conan O’Brien show and the OzAsia Festival. Then came the incredible run of four straight sold-out nights at the Istana Budaya – Malaysia’s equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall – alongside the National Symphony Orchestra and Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger. In the midst of all that exhaustive globetrotting, the petite Subang Jaya lass even found time to record a song (“Shine Your Way”) for Dreamworks’ animated film The Croods
. But Yuna simply isn’t done with 2013 just yet, and having already teased her audience with hints at a bold crossover into the realm of soul and R&B via the Sixth Street EP
, the time is finally ripe for her to reveal the rest of her hand to the world.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the sudden abundance of new Yuna material, coupled with Nocturnal
’s immaculately polished style and its star-studded production cast, virtually banishes memories of a time when sub-par rips of “Deeper Conversation” and “Cinta Sempurna” were all that fans would be able to find after the densest of online searches. This creates an interesting dichotomy, for part of Yuna’s early appeal was the relative rarity of her work, and how raw each of those compositions tended to be. “Deeper Conversation”, for instance, probably would not be as treasured as it is today had it appeared along with a host of other similarly-arranged songs, while a track like “Penakut” quickly seems unbearably leaden once the acoustic guitar is swapped out for a PRS Custom 24. Thankfully, Yuna’s songwriting has showed signs of evolution over the past few months, and the fourteen tracks on Nocturnal
(counting the three bonus tracks added to the Deluxe Edition) merely serve to confirm that observation.
The degree to which Yuna has enhanced her craft is perhaps best represented by the impeccable balance exhibited on Nocturnal
, with the Malaysian singer-songwriter wisely choosing to make full use of the additional artistic freedom traditionally accorded to sophomore records. The inclusion of elements of Malaysian traditional music – like the gamelan and dikir barat – also comes across as a vital cog instead of a token decoration. The flavorful “Rescue” is a case in point: while already notable for simply being the fastest track that Yuna has recorded in her career, it’s also the kind of contemporary world music piece that she probably would not have been able to pull off in her old guise as a storyteller of considerable melancholy. The track’s naked, autobiographical style is equally as surprising, and while it is difficult to glean any sort of specifics from lines like, “She thinks she’s all alone/And all her hopes are gone/And so I wrote this song/So she could move along”, there’s enough emotional heft in it to make one sympathize with her plight. Fittingly, Yuna’s successful struggle against the Self is symbolized by the pitch-perfect execution of a wonderfully looping chorus that probably took quite a bit of learning and practice to pull off.
Elsewhere, April’s playful dabbles into soul and electronica are also fully realized in Nocturnal
. The Rhye-influenced “Falling”, for instance, is a welcome addition to Yuna’s canon. Produced by none other than Quadron’s Robin Hannibal, the number bears the unmistakable hallmarks of the songsmith’s workmanship from start to finish. Large gaps are left floating around our heroine’s vocals, and the chorus is thrown into even sharper focus by the negative spaces echoing cavernously around it. Later on, there are songs like “I Want You Back” and “Colors”, which vividly capture similar instances of late night desperation previously explored by other soul auteurs such as Corinne Bailey Rae. Equally as notable is the fact that Nocturnal
also counts Sixth Street
’s “I Wanna Go” as part of its repertoire, and if nothing else it’s startling to see how polished the rest of the album is compared to their older sibling. However, if there is a single track in this goulash of contemporary pop that truly warrants your attention, it would be the beautifully performed “Mountains”. The song opens with a spindly guitar riff that pitches and yaws before eventually dipping precipitously into a chorus that even indie rock giants The xx would be proud of. “I’m waiting for the mountains to fall/Waiting for the mountains to fall,” explains Yuna calmly on the song’s chorus, and on the strength of the material presented here, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t eventually.
But while her compositional and stylistic developments are already massive achievements in their own right, it has to be said that Yuna’s true victory lies in her unerring ability to find the right balance between the religious conservatism of her home country and the free-spirited liberalism often needed to sustain mainstream international appeal. Her turban-cum-headscarf has been turned into a fashion statement instead of a point of conversation, while her stubborn desire to always play the game by her own rules has also transposed her into a rallying point for a new generation of aspiring, information-savvy Malaysians. Precious few artists are able to capture the zeitgeist of their nation, and fewer still exhibit an ability to survive at the crossroads of the world, but Yunalis Zara’ai has proven once again to be the little girl that could.