If you’re like me, you probably did a double-take when you heard that Yellow River Blue would be Yu Su’s debut LP. Yu Su has been one of the brightest new stars in electronic music for several years now, and she’s already had several highly-acclaimed projects to her name. For most fledgling artists, their first full-length album is a chance to prove themselves—but not Yu Su. Maybe that’s why I did a double-take. The Chinese-born, Vancouver-based producer has a sound so fully-formed and so mature that it’s hard to believe she didn’t have a single LP to her name until now.
What’s even harder to believe is that Yu Su didn’t even get into—let alone make—electronic music until about 2014, after she had moved to Canada. She sounds like someone who’s been crafting sonic wizardry from the day she could crawl. After showing flashes of greatness on her first EP, 2018’s Preparation for Departure, Yu Su came into her own on 2019’s Roll with the Punches, a spacey, downtempo masterpiece full of trippy percussion and blissed-out ambience. She one-upped herself just a couple of months later with “Watermelon Woman”, a riff on Herbie Hancock’s legendary jazz classic “Watermelon Man”. At the risk of musical blasphemy, I’ll say that it is at least as good as Hancock’s original (and yes, I love Hancock).
Now, two years later, has Yu Su one-upped herself again? It’s difficult to say. But one thing is for sure: Yellow River Blue is the studio maestro’s most versatile statement yet. There are shards of Chinese classical, new wave, downtempo and trip-hop, and it’s all seamlessly interwoven. On the opener “Xiu”, Yu Su pairs an elegant pipa riff (the pipa is one of China’s foremost classical instruments) with minimal kick drums and fluttery, wordless vocals. The track unites the classical and the modular beautifully and probably could’ve fit right in on Roll with the Punches. The pipa returns on “Melaleuca”, where a mid-tempo house groove is overlaid with Chinese classical and a hint of retro synth-pop. It’s the warmest piece on the record, full of shimmering pads and breezy sound design.
All in all, though, Yellow River Blue has a darker, more foreboding air than any of Yu Su’s past work. Take “Futuro”, with its dubbed-out bassline and rickety percussion. Beneath the bass and drums’ sleepy tempo, there’s a series of scarry, chugging synths that echo and fade like a rumbling subway train. Then there’s “Klein”, the album’s ultimate surprise. Here, a menacing sub-bass groove is paired with layers of feedback and a pounding, 1990s-style trip-hop groove. Topping it all off is Yu Su’s piercing, nasally vocal dubs attempting to scream through the mix. The beat disappears at the end, leaving the bass and vocals bared and giving Su’s voice a disembodied feel. Unlike some of the earlier songs here, it sounds nothing like Roll with the Punches.
One of the great things about Yellow River Blue is its structure—Yu Su always manages to offset the harsher moments with room to breathe. The track “Dusty”, which comes right after “Klein”, is one such moment. The song begins in a hazy swirl of gentle shakers, watery piano, and blissed-out ambience. About halfway through, a beat drops, but it’s slow and meandering, an elegant little come down from all the hammering and battering of “Klein”. It’s like the moment at a dance party where the fatigue has set in—the music is still going, and people are still dancing, but the night is no longer young, and everyone is moving in slow motion.
The album comes full circle with the beautiful “Melaleuca (At Night)”, with its twangy pipa, gossamer keyboards, and plodding downtempo groove. It isn’t exactly a rerun of the first “Melaleuca”, but it does have many of the same elements. The music is brilliantly understated, the sound design brisk, jaunty, and light, conjuring images of the seaside at night.
If Yellow River Blue were anyone else’s debut, I’d call it a promising one. But it isn’t, because Yu Su has already fully arrived, and she’s been here for years. If anything, her latest work just cements her status in the upper echelon of modern electronic artists. Yellow River Blue is the latest in a string of success stories for Yu Su, and it’s her boldest, most eclectic statement yet.