Album Review: Lucinda Chua – YIAN

[4AD; 2023]

It’s exciting when an artist blooms seemingly out of nowhere. London-based cellist and composer Lucinda Chua basically did just that. Known mostly for her pair of intriguing and well-received Antidote EPs, Chua takes a pop-informed look at ambient music, shooting her celestial compositions through a lens of soothing soundscapes and aural flight. Arising from the ether, Chua’s EPs gave us a tantalizing taste of what she is capable of as a songwriter and performer, and now with her debut LP, YIAN, we get a fuller vision.

If you really took to her EPs, then you are in for a treat. YIAN gives us more of those EPs gave: blossoming walls of soft sound, plaintive pianos and gentle keyboards, and her own deep and feathery voice. Her lyrics often settle into repetitive cycles, spinning their phrases like lost proverbs full of some deep knowing. However, if you found yourself less drawn to the two Antidotes volumes, you likely won’t find much to savor here. And even if you were entranced by those efforts, the elongated duration of a full-album setting proves to be a bit more of a struggle for Chua’s particular brand of ambient pop.

YIAN unfolds at the same glacial pace of Antidotes, with an even-stronger foundation of keyboards to lead the way. The Rhodes-ish tones carry much of the album, and while their inherent melancholy is a perfect fit for the sonic portraits Chua wants to paint, they don’t often drift far out of the same range. From song to song, the general key doesn’t shift enough to mark much of variation. Which is not inherently a bad thing — setting a mood for a whole album is a move that can pay off beautifully, like on Floating Points’ Promises or virtually any Grouper record — but here, the scale is kept so insular, and the vibes so cyclical, that YIAN ends up not delivering with much staying power.

The other elements don’t switch up too wildly, either. The strings buoy pleasantly and emotively, the higher keyboard notes trickle in for color, and the bass notes hum out in a lovely, warm fashion. It’s all very round and airborne, which is likely what Chua was going for if the album art and title (which translates to “swallow” – the bird) are anything to go off of. And truthfully, the whole album is awfully, terribly, gorgeous. At any given moment, something deeply pretty is happening. But as a whole 37-minute project, the sameness gets a little drab.

That’s not to say some stellar moments don’t stick out. Opener “Golden” is a highlight (perhaps by virtue of going first). It’s beautiful in its tender questioning (“Who do I turn to / When I’m not part of you?”), while Chua’s voice flashes its subtle bluesiness in the chorus. The whole thing ebbs like a thawing river. The following instrumental, “Meditations on a Place”, was coproduced with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen — and it sounds like it. Chua’s strings burn brightly and warmly, and the piece has a blurry ambience that’s alluring in its mysteriousness. It sounds exactly like something Wiltzie’s other two gigs could easily find themselves producing.

Elsewhere, we get “Autumn Leaves Don’t Fall”, which is saved by Chua singing in a lower, almost-spoken register. It’s a surprising choice that mixes up the album at a crucial point. “Grief Piece” has some brittle, crushed electronic flourishes that spruce up another instrumental breather, though it’s quite short at just over two minutes. And the closer, “Anything Other Than Years”, is hugely aided by a guest vocal from yeule, whose voice injects a new timbre for Chua’s to play off of, just in time for a softly climactic finale.

In all honesty, any time Chua does something a little different — tinkers with formula a little bit — the album feels like it’s approaching something greater. The sounds are beautifully produced, and Chua’s albeit limited but crystalline voice evokes some trip-hop singer of yore singer who was lost to the eons, poised and chilly but with palpable pathos. The record often flows nearly-imperceptibly from track to track, creating a sort of ecosystem all its own, which harkens to its deep ambient undercurrents. But, hanging together as it does, like a morning mist, YIAN is a bit of a soggy, homogenous listen.