Cui Jian’s music paints pictures: “A Piece of Red Cloth,” an anthemic song that Cui performed during the Tiananmen protests, instantly summons images of the young rocker covering his eyes with the titular cloth, a gesture representative of what had become a ‘blinding’ socialist ideology — and that chillingly presaged the Chinese military’s execution of protesters. To put it another way, as with any culturally significant rock star, Cui’s history is as much tied to his music as it is to his image. This is further evidenced in his relationship with Chinese cinema: in addition to starring in 1994’s seminal Sixth Generation film Beijing Bastards, he frequently appears in his friend Jiang Wen’s movies, and gave a lauded performance in the high-grossing 2001 Mainland drama Roots and Branches. Cui’s affiliation with film only intensified in the decade between 2005’s Show You Colour and 2015’s Frozen Light: One of his tours resulted in the 2012 3D concert documentary Transcendence; he debuted as a film director in 2013, with the drama Blue Sky Bones; and he directed his most ambitious and sprawling music video, for Frozen Light’s lead single, “Outside Girl.” Apparently recorded “live,” the 14 minute clip, which was shot by the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, begins with footage of Cui and his longtime band in a cave intercut with a modern dance performance that’s heralded by a CGI UFO dropping off three women in spandex and opaque headgear onto the surface of the Moon. From here things get bizarre: Bodies and faces, including Cui’s own, are caked in lumpy, dark clay; the sound of a gong causes the image to splinter, the colors to invert; the dancers emerge from their alien outfits in modern day dress, and somehow become even more unsettling; and in the final seconds, the earth itself spins out of control. The video is the most avant-garde thing that Cui has ever done — and so it seems like a kind of extension of the experimentation on Show You Colour.
Following the 10-year wait that preceded it, Frozen Light is something of a disappointment. Still, Cui’s embrace of the more classic rock sounds of his youth also lends a satisfying modesty to this album.
But “Outside Girl” is also a bit misleading: an eight-minute slab of acid blues, built around heavy metal bass and skronking saxophone, it sounds like something that the 1990s alternative band Morphine might’ve recorded — had Mark Sandman lived to see 2015 — and is by far the best and most musically audacious song on Frozen Light. The rest of Cui’s latest album seems to strive to recapture the hooky sound he commanded at the height of his popularity. Some of the songs get there: “No Turning Back” betrays its lyrics’ implicit defeatism (“Smash my head against the wall”) with an uptempo, jittery rockabilly arrangement. The bridge has some of the cleanest horn charts on a Cui song since the ‘90s, and in general, “No Turning Back” sounds like a rock artist at the peak of his powers, albeit one that isn’t exactly challenging himself. Bolder, but less successful, is the six-and-a-half-minute “Fish-Bird Love,” a duet between Cui and Tibetan singer Yunggiema (a finalist on the 2014 season of Chinese Idol). The collaboration makes sense: Cui is also of ethnic minority descent, and his music relies on sounds from across the Chinese diaspora. But the cabaret jazz-pop of “Fish-Bird Love” doesn’t really play to either singers’ strengths — at least, not until the last third, when back-masked guitars and throat singing enter the fray. Cui’s latest also suffers from a problem that he’s rarely had on prior releases: the songs actually feel too long. Inflated track lengths have been a near constant in Cui’s discography, but whereas superlative musicianship and dynamic composition make a song like 1994’s eight-minute “Tolerate” sound justifiably epic, the repetitive “Cool Melon Tree” (a song with the thrilling subject matter of finding contentment) wears out its welcome even at just over five minutes. Following the 10-year wait that preceded it, Frozen Light is something of a disappointment. Still, Cui’s embrace of the more classic rock sounds of his youth also lends a satisfying modesty to this album. On “Outside Girl,” Cui sings, “Take me away with you,” cannily inverting the lyrics (“When are you going with me?”) from his first, career-making song, “Nothing to My Name.” If he isn’t willing to lead a generation anymore, it might just be because he wants to see where the new generation can take him.