Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce, Miley Cyrus has Hannah Montana, and Mariah Carey has Mimi; Sui Zhen (AKA Becky Sui Zhen) has Susan. The Melbourne, Australia–based artist, who paints, draws, and directs, produces, and edits her surreally wonderful music videos, also DJs under the name of her alter ego. In Secretly Susan, her new album, she delves deeper into the dreamy world of this character who lends herself to some strange narratives and music—and some that are, surprisingly, as normal as the alter ego’s name suggests.
Beginning with “Teenage Years,” Sui Zhen establishes a warm synth-pop sound cast in a cinematic glow. Waves crash and recede in the intro, then fade into a shimmering synth and reverberating beat as an echoing voiceover sets the scene in the style of “Leader of the Pack”: “This morning and every morning, I awake unprepared…” When singing comes in, it arrives with a waif-like delicacy reminiscent of Grimes (a spiritual kin to Sui Zhen both in sound and art-meets-pop style).
Much of Secretly Susan carries the bubblegum sheen of nostalgia—not for the artist’s past, but for one captured by The Shangri-Las and their peers. On “Dear Teri,” “Walk Without Me,” and other tracks, Sui Zhen has a ’60s-pop, girl-band feel. Though the album relies primarily on electronic instruments, revolving around minimalistic but resounding beats and twinkling synth riffs, the chorus echoes and bright, syncopated guitar strumming invest the album with an unexpected but delightfully retro tone.
The narratives, for the most part, also follow the straightforward ideas of pop from the last half a century (and beyond). In the slow-building, bass-driven “Take It All Back,” Sui Zhen repeats the title throughout, saying, “I wanna make it better / Make it right / And take it all back,” a simple expression of regret. On “Walk Without Me,” she starts, “Take my hand ‘cause I’ve got something to tell you,” before embarking on a stoic breakup song with flute sounds, a clean guitar, a shuffling rhythm, and occasional whistling. The artist never crosses the line into the territory of cliché, though. Throughout the album, she produces a sense of performance, as if she is trying on tropes and themes for the sake of Susan. In Secretly Susan, you never lose sight of the fact that the alter ego is much more conventional and direct than the cunning hand behind her.
Sui Zhen takes pains to remind us of that with odd and original touches. Even on “Walk Without Me,” some of the best moments occur in the doubling or call-and-response between the dainty female voice and a low, effects-laden counterpart—a literal dark undertone in an otherwise sweet-sounding track. Dark undertones also lurk in “Infinity Street,” whose bass and drums recall, appropriately, “Land Down Under,” but whose general echo and sparseness create an ominous mood worthy of creepy lines such as, “I can still see the sun / It’s shining over me / Never quite setting / ‘Til infinity” (perhaps, though, this reading is a result of seeing the exceptional Sui Zhen–made video, which can’t be unseen). All of the sweetness and creepiness culminates in “Alter Ego,” which swallows Susan’s miniscule voice in woozy guitars. At the end, Sui Zhen sends her alter ego off in one last high-pitched trill as she fades into the sound of chirping birds and a foreboding ring.