As friends know, I have not been the most friendly critic of JJ Lin’s music. While many fawn over his virtuoso singing and musical abilities, I tend to play the devil’s advocate, interjecting sharply that I believe he had not yet reached his full potential as an artist.
At the bottom of it all though, I truly am a fan of JJ’s. The fact that I have collected almost every album of his since 2008 is testament to that fact. As an artist, I have always believed that JJ has had the most potential to be the next Mandopop megastar alongside the likes of Wang Leehom and Jay Chou. Not just because of his versatile and unique vocals, nor for his fluency in various musical instruments, but for the inherent likability of the melodies that he writes. I have rarely seen anyone who writes catchy and likable tunes as consistently as Lin, and I believe that this is a talent that can be used to spread the right messages the Chinese music industry so sorely needs to regain its dignity as one of the most creative in Asia, and one day, even the world. Just like how “Gangnam Style” which was originally written as a social critique of Korean society, Lin’s catchy melodies if combined with the right message could gain both global and critical acclaim, exposed the wider world to the creative, free-flowing nature of our industries. So as you can see, I’ve had a tall order set up for Lin from the moment I began appreciating his music.
But album after album, there was always something that rang hollow in each one. Lin’s style seemed versatile without a rhyme or rhythm, and lyrics were often just the same old love ballad crap. Many albums were overly marketed with a theme, but often just fell back into the predictable routine of love ballads, a sprinkling of upbeat hip hop tracks, at least two collabs in each album, and one token English song that weirdly enough seemed to always have a kind of military theme to it (when others are spreading peace and not war, this is definitely not the right message one wants to be giving off). So overall, although his songs were undeniably well produced and catchy, it was missing one thing that I look for in every album, especially by singer-songwriters: their own unique flavour. By that, I mean the kind of songs that you just KNOW were written by a particular person.
Prominent examples include Leehom, Jay Chou, Khalil Fong, and Ronghao Li. Because music is all about expression. It’s all about having your voice heard, both literally and metaphorically. JJ was literally having his voice heard, but all his messages felt disconnected. I wanted to hear the real him that lay behind his pretty boy appearance. And after eight years of waiting, his experimental album From M.E. To Myself was the answer to all my prayers.
This time around, JJ went all out to provide us with not just an album of 10 pieces of music, but with an EXPERIENCE. An experience, of what it was like to be him in some aspects, and in others, what it was like to be his friend, his confidant. Creating intros, outros and soundbites of seemingly normal events in his life, such as tuning up, conversations with his friends reminiscing, speaking to fans and taking some me-time on the beach, it was the normality and absolute authenticity of each of these soundbites that got to me each time. The ring of an iPhone during tuning sessions, even the awkward stutters of a relaxed conversation with friends was enough to assure me of the realness of these situations, and of JJ’s utmost sincerity in wanting to share an honest part of his life with his listeners.
So atmosphere, check. Getting down to the real music , it was clear that Lin had curated more simple fare to suit the stripped-down atmosphere of the album this time around, Kicking the album off with chart-topping single “Twilight”, the song finally brought to light Lin’s ability to seamlessly create melodies with depth and emotion that were catchy. Props to him for truly writing lyrics that were heartfelt and showed his raw emotions, as he sang about his journey of self-discovery and chasing dreams. With many changes in vocal technique and syncopated tempo that could throw many off within a second, it was definitely a hard song to sing that was encapsulated beautifully by Lin’s velveteen vocals that navigated the valleys and peaks in the song perfectly, creating a juicy tension that just kept listeners diving back into the song for more. Going with a huge piano and orchestral arrangement with rock drums, it was a grand way to kick off the album in a way that delivered Lin’s album concept powerfully, telling the audience ‘This Is Me’.
Beautiful lyrics written for each of the songs, most were of the acoustic persuasion which helped create an even more intimate setting for Lin’s music. Following second track “Keywords關鍵詞” which was a simple, yet effective fusion of Chinese traditional melodies with a light hip-hop element to it, Lin delicately shrugged off the polished outer layer of his album by transitioning into the ‘daily life’ section of his album. Starting off with his song “By Your Side只要有你的地方” which featured nothing but Lin’s voice and reflective pluckings of an acoustic guitar, the lyrics were sweet but not cloying. The unique style in which he recorded this, using the ‘dummy head’ recording technique immediately immersed the listener in an intimate bedroom scenario. Before he starts playing, the charming JJ whispers “are you asleep”, before beginning to sing softly. The recording technique he used did wonders for the song, creating an almost tangible feeling of him moving as he played a guitar, closer and closer as he sang a lullaby to his loved one. Once again, Lin’s vocals tailored themselves perfectly to the song, not singing loudly, but in a raspy, whispery tone. Not loud enough to wake the neighbours, but not so soft as to affect the emotions he wished to convey. And to top it all off, in the replication of a night atmosphere clouded with a rose-pink haze of half-consciousness, JJ ends the song with a sweet kiss which will leave any listener with goosebumps that last long after the song has finished.
A similar technique was used for his next track, “A Song For You Till The End Of Time彈唱”, which used the intimacy of daily sounds such as the splashing of water, tinkling of cups and the moving of JJ further and closer to the mic at different intervals to mimic his movements through rooms as he gets ready to start the day. Once again, a simple and effortlessly light, optimistic guitar accompanies Lin’s voice which takes on a sunny texture.
This signals an end to his ‘daily life’ section of the album, with another soundbite to help transition the album into his ‘performance’ section, which features a collaboration between himself and two of his lesser known buds Mike and Shin called “Adolescent有夢不難” in a genre-bending attempt at blending acoustic guitar with rap and rock. Thanks to the inherent likability of the melody, the complex and unique song structure seemed to work well and provided me with a refreshing and interesting listening experience. Once again, his collaborators voices were rough and raw with emotion, which fitted the song’s theme of rugged determination and unadulterated passion for music like a glove. JJ, who is normally known for collaborating with big-name artists such as Leehom, Mayday and Gem Tang on 4 to 5 songs on each album should be applauded for finally going back to basics and realizing that collaborations should come from the genuine interest in the ways that two or more artists interact together to create new chemistry. This song is fiery and relatable in that we are all fighting hard for something we are passionate about in this world, and JJ has given some of his good friends who are yet unknown the chance to tell the world how they have felt on this arduous journey of making music. The seventh track which is part of the ‘live performance’ section of the album is one of my favourites, simply because I was so happy to see JJ taking on not just new genres, but just new ways of writing great songs that were unconventional, but still ever so catchy. Some pithy lyrics coupled with a folk-rock melody and some nicely placed snares makes for a great bohemian-rock feel that I can’t get over. Lin’s voice again maneuvers the song perfectly in both the livehouse and studio versions of the song, rendering me equally in love with both of them.
His duet with a couple of his old Singaporean buddies on the track “No Longer Us現在的我和她” stops time for a moment and transports us back to a time where JJ was still a unknown songwriter hoping to share his music with the world. The intro to the track which featured Lin and his buds talking was endearing and bumbling in part explaining the significance of this song they wrote together 12 yeaers ago. The song showcases Lin’s writing abilities at their freshest; although I am sure both of us know that the song isn’t the best he’s ever written; the quality of the music itself isn’t what this song is about. The song is about JJ reminiscing about his past and where he came from, capturing in a little over three minutes the persistence of that point in time, and the bittersweet emotions that come along with looking back on ones’ accomplishments. The shy voices of his friends singing along with him were imperfect and Lin’s own were simple without too much refinement. Accompanied by nothing but a guitar and hastily thrown together harmonies, the preciousness of this recording lay not in its quality, but in its spontaneity, and the complex mix of emotions that were captured in the flaws of the song.
Finally, JJ’s last section to the album was one that initiated an air of self-reflection and serenity, with him singing soulfully about his faith and his trials in the English track “Liar And Accuser” and going all out experimenting with a Spanish-inspired sound mixed with a little folk influence in “獨舞The Lone Ranger” that guarantee you a vibrant and colourful listening experience.
Overall, it is truly hard for me to express in words how happy listening to this album has made me. One thing I’ve always valued in music is authenticity and being true to yourself, and that is certainly something JJ has achieved in this album. Listening to his previous albums for me was like listening to a blank slate-one that was quite devoid of imperfections, yet distant and disconnected. Now, I’m happy to finally be listening to the JJ that I always knew was in there; the JJ who is flawed, yet persistent, the JJ who is sweet and kind to his friends, and the talented JJ whom by just being himself is now ready to take the world by storm as the next Leehom-if he so wishes. Truly the epitome of the phrase ‘perfection found in imperfection’, certainly one of the best, if not the best I’ve listened to this year.
Review score: 9 out of 10
From M.E. To Myself by J J Lin is currently available to stream on the KKBox platform in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.