Album Name : Story Thief 偷故事的人
Release Date: 19/12/2017
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By Matt Taylor
It’s impossible to discuss the landscape of Mandopop without paying homage to A-Mei 張惠妹. Over an illustrious 22 year career she has established herself as a vocal powerhouse without peers, become a renowned ally to Taiwan’s Aboriginal and LGBT people, and one of the most most iconic artists in Mandopop history, selling over 50 million records in the process.
Rather than relying on past glories, A-Mei has continued to persevere in not only making music which can capture the ears and hearts of Mandopop fans around the world, but also attempt to challenge herself artistically, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than her sixteenth studio album Story Thief 偷故事的人. The record exists on an entirely different side of the spectrum to 2015’s Amit 2 阿密特2 and even her most recent Utopia World Tour 烏托邦世界巡迴演唱會: Whereas Amit 2 saw her seethe, snarl and scream over angry heavy metal riffs, and the Utopia Tour saw A-Mei delivery high energy choreography and explosive performances, Story Thief is instead a significantly more subdued moment: a perhaps purposeful move. We see a new side of A-Mei - one who is a story teller.
When considering which direction she wanted to take for the record, A-Mei said that she was inspired by her everyday observations of people, and the way that they react and talk to each other. Being aware of the emotional connection her fans have with her music, this led her to ponder whether it was her and her song which people enjoyed, or whether the listeners were instead able to see themselves in the song, taking the story away from her and keeping it to themselves - in essence, being story thieves.
The concept of Story Thief presents an interesting question not limited to A-Mei but is a valid query regarding music in general - When we listen to music, how important is it that we establish an emotional connection to the song? When we listen to music, do we relate to the story of the performer, or do we instead apply it to our own lives and experiences? Is our enjoyment of music led by our ability to see ourselves in the song? On a more philosophical level, if we directly correlate our lives and experiences through the music that we listen to, does the song belong to the performer, or does it instead belong to the listener, with the performer simply acting as a vehicle?
In order to answer this question, A-Mei assembled an army of Mandopop's most renowned songwriters and performers to contribute to the record. Contributors including Jay Chou 周杰倫, JJ Lin 林俊傑, Eve Ai 艾怡良, MJ116 and Lala Hsu 徐佳瑩 took a major role in the creation of the album, with minimal creative input from A-Mei herself outside of the vocals. In essence, A-Mei has attempted to understand her own journey through the experiences of others, making her a story thief herself.
The opening track being titled after the album is no coincidence. Story Thief was the song which inspired the record and it had a huge impact on A-Mei, who said that when she first heard it, the lyrics and melody instantly connected with her, and that regardless of her surroundings, she felt isolated - just her and the song. The track itself (penned by Eve Ai 艾怡良) although lacking in chorus, see’s A-Mei contemplate a failed relationship, verbalizing her heartbreak with piercing lyrics such as “the day you left I stopped telling stories “I apologize for being unreasonable / I apologize for my vanity / you won’t even leave me an ending”
The following track Damaged 壞的好人 is as equally minimalistic as the predecessor, with A-Mei wiping away the naivete of her younger years, and accepting that even good people can be bad, all whilst accompanied by a solemn acoustic guitar and an aching string ensemble. A-Mei's voice soars over the bridge and chorus, whilst the verses play with the impact of double syllable wordplay, giving the track a fresh yet welcoming atmosphere.
If A-Mei is the Queen of Mandopop, then Jay Chou 周杰倫 is the king, and Full Name 連名帶姓, a collaboration between the two with Chou penning the melody, is disappointingly the most conventional ballad on the record. Here A-Mei becomes the narrator of a story of unrequited love, longing for someone who is ignorant to their true emotions and sees her only as a friend, with the idea of referring to someone by their full name as a sign of coldness and impersonality. Whilst she holds the unattainable one in her heart, she squanders other relationships that come in the meantime “you are like a specimen nestled in my heart / Those that came after you didn’t do anything wrong.” A-Mei’s lyrical delivery conveys the emotion succinctly, and the accompanying melancholy piano adds a further layer of sadness.
Left Behind 身後, a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad dedicated to the death of her mother, allows A-Mei to verbalize the emotions felt when someone beloved travels over to the afterlife, and encapsulates those final conversations of sadness and reassurance. Over a piano and subtle strings, A-Mei pours her heart into the lyrics “You must remember that you have loved / Remember to continue walking forward / Your silhouette will always exist in my world.” The song gradually builds up into a final chorus representing those final seconds of life, where she tells her mother to enjoy the tranquility of a painless after-life and to give her burdens to her daughter, but to please not recognize her if they ever meet again, because the pain of saying goodbye is too great. The song is filled with emotion and sees A-Mei at her most fragile - indeed at times it feels as if you can feel her holding back tears as she delivers a punishingly sad chorus. JJ Lin 林俊傑, who wrote and composed the song, delivered an exceptionally well-written track designed specially to bring out the best that A-Mei has to offer, and is a refreshing alternative to the phoned-in contribution from Jay Chou on Full Name. For all its simplicity, Left Behind is the absolute standout on the record, with A-Mei's raw emotion delivering the listener a knockout blow from which it's hard to not press the repeat button over and over. Check out Jocelle's short cover of 'Left Behind' on APW's YouTube channel!
Despite themes of heartbreak and loneliness, the album is not exclusively ballads. Perhaps the most sonically interesting track on the record is Whatever 你說了算 - a collaboration with MJ116. The track is a musical kaleidoscope, flitting in and out of musical genres, instrumentation and even tempo and time signature. From the bluesy introduction to the hip hop inspired verses building up to an explosive key change filled chorus where A-Mei chastises her partner for how naturally he can lie to her, the song is a figurative rollercoaster ride. In an interesting turn of narrative, E-So 瘦子 provides the perspective of her partner, and refute A-Mei’s stance that he’s a lousy boyfriend. “Our communication is you picking and choosing what you want to hear / If i’m being too straightforward i’m scared i’ll hurt you / The guy you hope for doesn’t exist / Owning a dog is more realistic” This allows the listener to understand both sides of the situation (For more on this song, check out our Top 10 Mandopop Songs of 2017 article here).
This subversion of typical song structure is also witnessed in album closer Catfight, which see’s A-Mei compete against Eve Ai and Lala Hsu 徐佳瑩 (the writer and composer of the song respectively). All three women sparkle both individually and together as they take on the topics of resentment and jealousy over a trap-lite instrumental. Although Lala delivers an impressive verse and A-Mei effortlessly shows us the full reach of her vocal capabilities, it is Eve who shines on this track with a take no prisoners rap.
Alongside this, there are several electronic inspired tracks for the listener to enjoy. Withdrawal Symptoms 戒斷 has a staggering amount of collaborators involved in its production, seeing input from Jay, JJ, Eve, MJ116, as well as Rose Liu 劉明湘. Although the proverb too many cooks spoil the broth may make us hesitate that the song will be overcooked from such a large number of collaborators, this is thankfully not the case, and the end result is a bass driven, surprisingly explicit song, working as a delicious combination of trap-inspired beats and A-Mei’s smooth and sensual vocal performance, seeing her coo in desire of her partners touch, and scent. Talk About It 到底 follows suit in a similar vein.
Considering the above, can we say that Story Thief is A-Mei’s best album to date? The answer is probably not, and we can identify two aspects where the record fails. Firstly, whilst the record has some impressive moments, there aren’t any specific standouts that could be considered an addition to her canon of classics, and whilst consistency isn’t a bad thing, the lack of truly exceptional moments mean that the album falls comparatively flat against both her classic albums of the 90s and her more recent works.
Secondly, whilst the album is achingly beautiful, it depends on the listener being drawn in on the lyrical content and attaching themselves to emotion that she conveys, which as a result allows for many songs to be lacking in hooks or discernible singalong choruses.
They say that the best storytellers are those that are able to immerse their audience in what they say, and to this effect, A-Mei is an incredibly talented orator. Whilst she may be known for being armed with a powerhouse voice, what we see on display on Story Thief is a vocal performance that not only draws the listener in, but actually takes them on a journey, as a result making them feel that the song was made specifically for them - a difficult feat to achieve.
Story Thief is not an easy listen, neither is it an easily accessible pop album. What it is, however is a mature pop album designed for adults who have experienced life, and the ups and downs that people experience, and gives them a safe space to contemplate and reflect on their own journeys. It is a record made by someone who is seemingly sorrowful, older and wiser than before, but perhaps most importantly is a record made by someone who despite being painfully aware of the realities of love and life, is still hopeful for the future.