"Maybe some of you come here with broken hearts/Maybe some of you come here with emptiness/I've been there before and I tell you now/This sure is the place to come/'Cause when you listen to that sweet music.../It's bound to feel your soul.../And maybe it makes a difference."
In that brief, improvised prologue to Fear & Trembling, which Kelvin Tan opens his latest, live album with, we find the musician's very raison d'etre: to translate his experiences and the lessons learnt, as well as to empathise.
How ironic, now, that as one listens to Tan's recording of his gig, it is the listener's turn to empathise.
If Kelvin Tan's first two albums were delicate, soul-bearing confessionals, then Songs In Search Of An Other, Tan's (relatively inconspicuously-released) live album is, by far, the recording that captures Tan at his most vulnerable. Recorded at an ill-received gig at LT13 at the National University of Singapore as part of the promotion of his first album, The Bluest Silence, Tan describes that experience as a "life-changing" one: "I literally played to a quiet, unreactive audience, the first time I'd encountered one. It was a humbling, disturbing experience... it forced me to reassess my life as an artist."
It was this, of course, that would send Tan receding and searching into the depths of his soul to purge his inner demons and produce his downward-spiralling magnum opus that was Alone, Descending... Sisyphus.
As a live album, Songs is an interesting listen for Tan's little scattered improvisations, as well as comments (although many of those come in mumbles) in between songs. Before William Blake's Ghosts, for instance, Tan tells of how he went to Dublin and "saw Ulysses by my side." There is also a disjointed electric jam with start-up problems just before Venus Defiled, humbly titled, Guitar Intro.
However, besides that, the renditions of his songs differ little from their studio versions on Silence. And although, admittedly, Tan does sound better live than in the studio (he bleeds tenderness on his love songs), his inadequacies as a singer are still apparent in his slow, lengthy, ponderous songs (the longest being the seven-and-a-half minute longueur that is Venus Defiled) sung with a sandpaper, baritone drone.
It is no surprise, then, that the stronger songs on this CD include the more upbeat and impassioned Ghosts. The previously unreleased Lumbini, also, is an enchanting listen. It is a picaresque tale recalling a trip to Nepal that reignites an old friendship. Here, Tan's lyricism once again stirs the heart, as he describes the Edenic Lumbini to a jangly mellifluous folk-strum: "It was nothing we expected/It was simpler than poetry/Minimally affected... Breathe the air filled with imaginary lotuses."
Other than the live tracks, the CD ends off with a remix of Opus 7 Leviathan (from Sisyphus) by Jason Tan as well as another new track, Natural. Both, perhaps, offer an insight into the "new direction" Tan might be going into, with the use of synthesizers to create a rounder, more lush sound. Unfortunately, the light instruments on Opus 7 actually takes away from the song's morose lyrics, creating a tragically schizophrenic track. Natural a "soulful" number which Tan confesses to "really love" is ruined by its cheap digital beats. You can't help but feel Tan still does it best with guitar, four chords and the truth.
At the end, Tan's gig failed because his music is best appreciated in contemplative solitude, preferably with lyric book in hand Tan's strength lies in his knack for difficult insights carved in poetic wordplay and sung to a hummable tune. This CD is disappointing because other than for the two new songs (and one new remix), and unless you are a completist, there is little reason to get it if you already own his first two records remarkable pieces of work on their own. (5) Mark Wong
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