Most Americans will remember Jay Chou for his role as Kato in 2011's fantastic movie adaptation of The Green Hornet. That was far from being Jay's first acting job, however, as he's been acting in Chinese films and television shows since 1999. But we're here to talk about Jay's music, so I digress.
Jay was first discovered in 1998 during a talent contest where he displayed his knack for playing the piano as well as singing. (He was trained in classical music, though that wouldn't end up being the direction he would go in.) For the next two years, he wound up writing songs for other Mandarin artists. He composed R&B and rock songs as well as pop songs, this in addition to songs that often meshed different genres together for something more unique. But writing for others wasn't enough of a creative outlet for Jay, so he released his first album, simply entitled Jay, in 2000, which included many songs he'd written for other artists that were ultimately rejected. The album did very well and established Jay as an artist who was capable of pop, rock, rap, R&B and classical music. During the years that have followed, Jay has released a brand new studio album every single year with the exception of 2009. Opus 12 is, as you've probably guessed, his 12th album.
The album blasts off with the propulsive "四季列車" ("Train Of The Four Seasons"), which opens with the sound of a train speeding along and sounding its horn. I thought it was going to be a little instrumental since it's only 2:40, but it proved to be a proper song and an infectious one at that. Mixing James Bond-like strings with gloomy synth, dark electronic undertones, suspense-building electro-loops and a thick, punchy beat, the music alone is enough to command your full attention, but Jay delivers hip hop verse after verse with a sense of urgency that only makes it that much more arresting. There's also a break with horns that seems to come out of left-field yet somehow fits perfectly.
The first time I listened to the album, it seemed like the second track, "手語" ("Sign Language"), couldn't be any more different than the opener, being that it's essentially a pretty piano ballad. It was only after listening to the album a few times that I realized that it has anxious flourishes of synth that almost mirror those in the opening track. Also, while Jay sings much of "Sign Language," there are rap parts and they're similar in tone to those in the opener. Still, I can't help but feel that track three, "公公偏頭痛" ("Gong Gong With A Headache"), would have been a better second track. Said to be Jay's take on "Gangnam Style," the song opens with maniacal laughter, which occasionally returns after the word "gong" is looped over and over, stuttering at the end. The music doesn't sound like "Gangnam Style," but supposedly the lyrics are his response to Psy, whom he is said to dislike. So, what does Jay's song sound like? A rather busy wall of sound with rapid-firing beats and all sorts of loops that make it all feel a little frantic. It isn't the catchiest song on the album but it certainly isn't boring either. (The video is hilarious, too; SEE BELOW.) On the contrary, it's a bit mesmerizing. And what is the catchiest song on the record? I'd say it's a toss up between the opener and "比較大的大提琴" ("Relatively Larger Cello") featuring Lara & Gary Yang, an uptempo tune that splits the difference between jazz and swing with hooks aplenty. Jay sings it playfully, obviously having fun with it, and its mix of upright bass, piano and horns is delightful. Then you have the animals, the song occasionally sounding like a busy farm. It's the sort of silly ditty you'd expect to hear during a scene at a speakeasy on Boardwalk Empire.
Many of the songs on Opus 12 are ballads, one of the best being "傻笑" ("Giggle"), a lovely duet with Cindy Yen. Musically, it blends upbeat piano with simple beats and little flourishes of sunshiny synth, but it's the interaction between Jay and Cindy that really makes the song, their voices complimenting each other perfectly. They also have great chemistry, helping the song work on every level. "愛你沒差" ("No Difference In Loving You") is almost as sweet with its cinematic strings contributing to its lush, gentle soundscape. Its only flaw is Jay's voice. He sings it passionately, but he also sounds like he's struggling to hit many of the higher notes, which is probably why he has a female singing backing vocals, in hopes of covering it up. It's followed by "紅塵客棧" ("Red Dust Inn"), which, fortunately, Jay sounds much better on. The only problem there is that it doesn't sound all that different from "No Difference In Loving You," being that they're both piano ballads with pleasant strings.
Ultimately, I find myself wishing that the album had a couple more pop or rap songs -- especially darker songs -- and less ballads. Still, it's a very enjoyable, cohesive work and an undeniable achievement. -Michael McCarthy