To watch an artist blossom in the early stages of their career is nothing short of a treat in itself, especially if the artist is willing to grow within the music their ascribing to. Note that “willing” is the keyword here, as there is nothing more disappointing when you see a talented artist fall into the quicksand trap of making one mundane album after another or see them so wrapped up in their own persona that the music in turn suffers for it. Thankfully, Yuna has evaded those misfortunes, as she makes a smooth transition into yet another autobiographical aural journey on what is now her third full-length release, Nocturnal.
In the thicket of throbbing EDM and flashy candy floss haired pop personas, Yuna emerged last year almost like a whimsical folkloric chanteuse. Walking down the winding road, destination unknown, but humming with guitar in hand, swathed in colorful headscarves and latched with an amiable boho-girl-next-door quality that while sweetly derived, provided onlookers as a snapshot throwback to the singer-songwriters era of the 1970s. Refreshing it was, and though the Malaysian singer wasn’t alone in her stroll that year (see Lianne La Havas and Esperanza Spalding) she was an intriguing sort as she exuded tranquil confidence with every step.
Her 2012 self-titled indie release debut, was an expansion of the coffeehouse strumming she had done on earlier released EPs, where she composed quiet and poignant pieces that captured some beautifully moving imagery in its lyrical surges. As delicately careful as her work was, it was still a bit safe. Her true siren song came with the single “Live Your Life,” a lounging, suave number that found her being propelled by the keen musical ear of Pharrell Williams and his enriching production, and after much acclaim, the quiet storm of Yuna was on the ascent.
For Nocturnal (her first major label debut via Verve) Yuna has tweaked her brand of acoustic soul making transitional choices. There are still flourishes of her indie past present, but they are now draped in a twinkling sheen of twilight R&B, with strokes of colorful pop panache peeking through. The songs sound fuller, polished, attentive, this thanks to splashes of symphonic strings and percussion — all newfound additives that were hinted on her Sixth Street EP, which was released earlier this year. What hasn’t changed is Yuna’s theme to have her music be about the search of self, and, paired with her soft-spoken and emoting vocal and keen lyrical pen, she lures us further into her evolving state of being.
She isn’t caught out there alone. Just as Pharrell provided a seamless fit for her in the beginning, she finds musing with the conclave of producers Robin Hannibal, Tomas Barfod, Chris Braide, Chad Hugo, Michael Einziger, Om’mas Keith, and Jeppe Kjellberg just as uniting this time out. Hannibal, of Quadron and Rhye fame, provides the best fit of all, as he builds the templates of front-running single “Falling” and “Lights and Cameras,” and like Williams’ before him, steps aside to let Yuna’s heart-on-sleeve sing out. “Falling” swirls in similar Quadron soul-pop precociousness, providing her with another signature tune, while “Lights and Cameras” gives a poignant humanized stance of dealing with her newfound public figure status, and both are about as tender and confessional as can be.
Nocturnal hints at being a sort-of post-breakup project, but Yuna is not an Adele or an Alanis, as she may shed a few frustrated tears here and there, but she holds tight onto her roller coaster ride of emotions and is unapologetic about her yearnings and joys in the name of romance — and in some instances she’s even optimistic about her future beyond the heartache. She’s illuminating and romantic on numbers like “Lovely Intermission” and “I Wanna Go,” and by contrast haunted and yearning on the beautifully expansive “Mountains.” Chad Hugo (Pharrell Williams’ partner in Neptunes producing crime) even allows Yuna to kiss-off a wayward love with sophistication on the should-be-next-single “Someone Who Cares.” “I Want You Back,” another standout cut, has her once again cutting her sweet routine by being frank towards her desires over a warm soul stir of bass lines and pianos. The anchoring number here is the buoyant “Rescue” as it provides the golden encouraging lines: “She’s got life in her veins/She doesn’t need no rescuing/She’s okay.” Still I find the bewitching soar of “Escape” to be Yuna’s real manifesto of self as she is completely candid, especially telling with the final line of “cherish these moments before their gone.”
They say it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for, and in the case of Yuna she manages to say a lot, and say it intensely without overstaying her welcome. Still, as soft as Yuna lays down her messages, they do stick and are far from being preachy or contrived, making Nocturnal one of the year’s most honestly alluring albums as it’s “got a lot of life in its veins” and perfectly transitions Yuna into an enriching new phase of her career as she continues to grow within her art for the better.