His fans would probably describe him as the greatest Indonesian singer ever lived. But, I am also a fan of his and, even though I see him as one of the greatest, I don’t think he is the greatest.
For one, his singing was not that versatile. While other male singers like Ahmad Albar and Gito Rollies easily traversed various styles, his voice required more care. The melody of the songs, the music arrangement and even the phonology of the lyrics must be carefully considered. Why? If just one was disregarded, his smooth voice would turn harsh. He even said that on his biography.
But, it is not to say he was not a great singer. There was something about the smoothness that enabled him to express the full emotionality of the songs, regardless of the composers and lyricists. In fact, even though he mostly sang original songs, he was one of those singers whose covers were perceived as good as the originals, if not better.
Another thing that makes me reluctant to say he was the greatest was his artistic integrity.
Unbeknownst to most non-fans and those who don’t know much about modern Indonesian music, Chrisye actually started as a rock musician. A progressive rock one, to be precise. His first album was a project called Guruh Gipsy, which fused progressive rock with Balinese gamelan music and western classical one.
In fact, his earlier albums are still heavily influenced by progressive rock. His roots are heavily present in them, despite him already being a pop singer by this point.
That can be credited to his collaboration with Yockie Suryoprayogo, whose background was also prog rock. No matter what the songs are, the musical arrangements always feel “progressive” in a way.
Thanks to Yockie, Chrisye was able to become a pop singer who maintained his roots. Sadly, the professional relationship had to be severed.
Apart from not wanting to be musically static, Chrisye also thought that -as much as his commended his colleague’s talent-, Yockie’s style did not fit his voice. Two of their collaborative album also commercially tanked, probably because they were too damn weird.
But, while there were good reasons for termination, I don’t think his musical career improved. The commercial success was still there. But, he was no longer a pop singer with prog rock roots. He was just a pop singer.
None of his successive collaborators (that I know of) had backgrounds in prog music. While he stood among his contemporaries a bit, Younky Suwarno’s musical arrangements were quite stale. While they can be a bit daring with their arrangements, neither Addie MS nor Erwin Gutawa have backgrounds in prog music.
In fact, his post-Yockie career included something that I call the ‘artificially cheerful’ trilogy: Aku Cinta Dia (I Love Him/Her; our pronouns are gender neutral), Hip Hip Hura and Nona Lisa (Miss Lisa). They are albums in which most of the songs have very cheerful melodies and arrangements, evoking a high degree of lightheartedness previously unheard of in his previous works.
I see them as artificial because the lightheartedness was forced. He and his collaborators were just following a trend, not because he was interested in making very happy music. Not to mention that he was coerced (to put it mildly) to wear colourful costumes and perform choreographies.
Besides his smooth voice, he also had other two trademarks: ‘bloodless’ stage performances and simple costumes. The fact that he suddenly changed his fashion and performance style just for the sake of maintaining popularity undoubtedly made him a sell-out.
Don’t get wrong: I like some of the songs from the trilogy, even the one that plagiarised Footloose. But, the albums are clearly the least Chrisye-like Chrisye albums.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention Guruh Soekarnoputra.
He was a co-founder of Guruh Gipsy, a project that gave Chrisye a once in a lifetime musical sensation. While it clearly did not make him an even more idealistic musician, it certainly cemented his passion for music.
But, that was not Guruh’s only influence on him.
For some reasons, there was something about his songs that just fit Chrisye’s voice. I don’t know why. But, it seems they were meant to be sung by him.
Because of this curious compatibility, Guruh frequently wrote songs for him. Some of Guruh’s most well-known works were originally performed by Chrisye and some of Chrisye’s most well-known songs are Guruh’s creations.
Guruh’s lyrics are admittedly not that great; sometimes, they can get too pretentious. His melodies, however, are wonderfully unpredictable. He has a strong background in traditional arts and the influences are audible in some of his songs.
Yockie helped him getting in touch with his musical root. Guruh helped him in touch with his ancestral one.
Eros Djarot, another songwriter, was also a frequent collaborator. But, I don’t know how influential he was on Chrisye’s musicality and I don’t know why they stopped collaborating after 1984.
His best albums?
Obviously, the ones I will mention are my personal favourite. But, I am going to pretend they are objectively the best… because I can. So, here they are:
Jurang Pemisah (Dividing Chasm), Sabda Alam (Nature’s Order), Badai Pasti Berlalu (The Storm Will Surely Pass)-both the 1977 and 1999 versions-, Sendiri (Alone), Kala Cinta Menggoda (When Love Seduces) and Dekade (do I need to translate this?). Of course, I love them for different reasons.
1. Jurang Pemisah
There is nothing original about it.
Even though its concept is about combining ‘sweet’ Pop with thumping Rock, the result did not sound groundbreaking at all. In fact, it sounds like a typical 1970’s pop rock album. As far as I am concerned, it is mostly known among Chrisye’s most devoted fans.
But, I still love it anyway. It has catchy tunes and it is quite mature as a debut solo album.
Okay, I am not sure if I should call this his solo album. Not only Yockie arranged the music, he also provided solo vocals in three songs. It feels like every Chrisye album with Yockie in it was less of a solo album and more of a collaborative one.
2. Badai Pasti Berlalu, 1977
It is hard for me to dislike the original BPB.
It is often lauded as a pioneer of pop kreatif, an Indonesian variant of art pop (and yes, it is a lame-ass name). It is a proof that, with the right musicians and producers, modern Indonesian music can be elevated to a higher aesthetic level and still be commercially successful.
It was also a soundtrack album for a popular film of the same name, which was based on a popular novel of the same. Chrisye and the album became more legendary than the film and the source material themselves.
I have read the novel. It is a sterile melodramatic story. It is a big meh.
3. Sabda Alam
While certainly not his first solo album and certainly did not launch his career, it feels like a grand solo debut.
It successfully introduced him as not just a talented solo pop star, but one with an artistic integrity and willingness to keep improving. It is another great example of pop kreatif album and, objectively, it is certainly one of his best works.
It is indeed stylistically and thematically similar to its predecessor, BPB. But, SA did not copy BPB. The former was only inspired by the latter. It does not feel like a carbon copy.
It is his only artsy post-Yockie album in the 1980’s.
Thanks to music arranger Addie MS (who is now known for his symphony orchestra), it has a strong influence of western classical aesthetics. The titular song’s classical piano-dominant arrangement is quite unusual for an Indonesian pop song, even to this day. I still don’t know exactly how it became popular in the first place.
But, I do notice how the style accentuates the smoothness of his voice… which is unfortunate because it is rarely used in his works. If it was utilised more, Chrisye’s songs would be of higher quality even without Yockie’s presence.
5. Badai Pasti Berlalu, 1999 version
I love this version because, from all of his post-Yockie albums, it has the most unusual musical arrangements; one of the songs uses sitar, gamelan and western-style choir.
Here, Erwin Gutawa showcases his ability to create relatively idiosyncratic arrangements while still complimenting Chrisye’s unique voice. Too bad this album is the only one where Gutawa pushes his limits.
It is also a reason why I almost left out Kala Cinta Menggoda, which was released two years prior, from the list.
6. Kala Cinta Menggoda
Compared to its successor, KCM feels uninspiring; the musical arrangement (also done mostly by Erwin Gutawa) is very much middle-of-the-road pop with token traditional elements. While every song is enjoyable, only Untukku, Ketika Tangan dan Kaki Berbicara and the titular song that truly impress me.
But, I choose to include it in the list anyway. As critical as my review can be, I cannot help but respect art pop albums (and the wannabes), especially if they are Indonesian.
Before the mid-1980’s, while there weren’t that many artsy Indonesian pop songs, they could be commercially successful. After the mid-1980’s (around the time when the ‘artificially cheerful’ trilogy was released), their popularity is almost impossible.
The fact that Chrisye and Erwin Gutawa were able to produced a commercially-successful artsy pop album in the 90’s is something worthy of respect.
When I mentioned how good he was in making song covers, I was thinking of this.
It would not be far-fetched to say this cover album revives people’s interest in the songs. In fact, I am certain most songs in the album end up more famous than the original versions.
Considering he had the skills, I am surprised and disappointed he didn’t do more song covers.
Wait, where’s Guruh Gipsy?
Some of my fellow fans would be bewildered by its exclusion. But, I have a good reason.
Yes, Guruh Gipsy is indeed a masterpiece. But, Chrisye was not that star. Guruh was. He was the project co-founder. He was the one in charge.
Chrisye might have a one-of-its-kind voice. But, the project would still exist without him.
The more I think about, the more I am disappointed by his career.
Yes, he was a talented musician who had created masterpieces and showed the true potentiality of modern Indonesian music. But, he was also a musician who had to compromise lots of times… and it shows in his works, which level of quality and idealism greatly vary from one another.
Of course, I cannot blame him. He was unfortunate to live life after the mid 1980’s, the time when idealism was almost entirely wiped out from the Indonesian music industry (and American one, if I may add).
It also does not help he was born in Indonesia, a country where the masses are culturally unsophisticated and have always been, a country where it is hard to find truly sophisticated pop musicians to collaborate with.
Oh, and I only use one source as a reference: his biography written by Alberthiene Endah.
Frankly, I hate it. It feels like it leaves out many things. I wish there are more detailed accounts of his creative processes throughout the years.
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