No Album Left Behind: Sui Zhen’s Losing, Linda

Sui Zhen’s infinitely captivating new LP drives home her longtime focus on digital identity

Music Reviews Sui Zhen
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No Album Left Behind: Sui Zhen&#8217;s <i>Losing, Linda</i>

Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.

Australian artist Becky Sui Zhen Freeman has long explored not just how the digital space collides with human identity, but how the internet preserves our existences long after we pass. Freeman, who records as Sui Zhen, mined this fascination for faintly satirical gold on her 2015 album Secretly Susan, throughout which she occupied the titular character to winkingly comment on how social media forges false identities, encourages vapidity and portrays lifestyles that would be unrealistic by everyday, non-internet standards.

But that character didn’t exist solely inside the album. For Secretly Susan’s three music videos, Freeman donned a blonde wig, adorned her face with sparkles and delicate makeup and rocked ocean-blue contacts to bring the droll and ditzy, if not wealthy and needlessly ostentatious, Susan to life. The musical universe she traversed felt at once of the future and indebted to longstanding genres: It was vaporwave stripped of irony and marinated in rigidity; it was bossa nova given an electronic touch; it was city pop wrapped in modern production techniques.

These genres and themes permeate Losing, Linda, Freeman’s surreal, endlessly catchy Secretly Susan follow-up. Lounge music and even a touch of reggae enter the fray too as Freeman’s sharper arrangements and bolder production widen the sharp right angles that previously defined her music. The change feels deeply considered: Via its titular character, Losing, Linda approaches digital identity from a much more abstract, if not lightly mocking, standpoint than its predecessor. If Secretly, Susan was the earthly side of Twin Peaks, then Losing, Linda is the Red Room.

Freeman’s shift toward the metaphysical from the overt becomes clear the moment Linda first makes herself known. That introduction, though, occurs somewhere both outside the album and is inextricable from the full Losing, Linda experience. Accompanying the LP is a digital ecosystem where Linda lives, a visit to which incites her—sometimes wearing her signature distended plastic mask, sometimes not—to ask all manner of questions that could either be completely meaningless or deeply insightful into the human condition. Depending on the answers Linda receives, she’ll turn up disconnected phrases, words, film cuts and clips from Losing, Linda’s three music videos.

“Another Life,” “Matsudo City Life” and “Perfect Place” all take place in that digital ecosystem, even when they appear of this world. Freeman and two versions of Linda (one of whom is played by her sister) convene hypnotically and unnervingly in a bed, drift through the same small expanse of woods without encountering one another and walk in sequence down a shoreline. It’s almost as though none of the three characters knows the other exists, suggesting that each one is an iteration of the other, a version of Linda that coexists with her future and past selves thanks to the world wide web. As Freeman gently sings of seeing things from another life over the soft synths and alluring flutes of the drifting, pitter-pattering “Another Life,” Linda’s digital ecosystem affirms this time gap.

Of course, Losing, Linda holds up independently of this ecosystem. On “Being a Woman”—seven minutes of city pop, lounge music and hooky synth-rock should not sound this bizarrely sing-along friendly—Freeman asks, “Who am I supposed to be? / Who will show me how to live?” as she questions how, after she dies, her internet self will reflect her sexuality, her gender and her ability to love. When she narrates moving through an endless “Natural Progression,” her almost-mechanical singing gives the pulsing, eerie synth-pop track a riveting sense of intrigue. Although “I Could Be There” and “Mountain Song” are respectively indebted to bossa nova and lounge music (they could both pass for aching indie rock ballads if Freeman’s unbendingly chipper voice were subtracted), their shared goal of finding a comfortable final destination—both in real life and in the digital world—transforms Linda’s computerized contours into pop music as high art, among the most human forms of expression.

Freeman spends much of Losing, Linda using her cyborg character to fulfill the mortal need for a place that truly feels like home. By the time “Perfect Place,” the album’s penultimate track and final non-instrumental tune, arrives, Linda seems to have found it: “It’s the perfect place,” she sings. “Get to know it.” When Linda finds serenity, Freeman does too, because her cyberspace counterpart is a vivid rendition of her real self.