LEXICON and the Reinvention of Isyana Sarasvati

By: Patricia Kusumaningtyas |

“Selamat datang padaku yang baru” (“Welcome to the new me”), Isyana Sarasvati sings in “Sikap Duniawi,” the first track in her third album, LEXICON. After her first two releases flirting with Indonesian pop music charts and radio hit-style pop, she unleashes her new sound on this album. Or, rather than her new sound, she’s coming back to her roots; holding a Bachelor of Music from the UK’s Royal College of Music, she dabbled with the world of classical music performance and composition from a young age through two instruments: the piano and her voice. Her classical music prowess finally holds center stage in LEXICON, while at the same time, exploring and deconstructing genres and other elements we might not see Sarasvati play with through the public eye. This exploration is done not only musically, but also lyrically, as Isyana shifts from day-to-day romantic lyrics to lyrics that span the expanse of our universe.

LEXICON starts off strong with “Sikap Duniawi,” which Sarasvati recorded with the Czech Symphony Orchestra with an orchestral score arranged by Tohpati. The album immediately delivers the statement that this is different from Sarasvati’s previous works. In “Sikap Duniawi,” Sarasvati experiments with a massive, orchestral composition, her more frequent use of classical vocal techniques, and occasional quiet interludes mixed with vocal layering that makes her work magnetic and dreamy at the same time. Her lyrics are as powerful as her music; in “Sikap Duniawi,” she sings about the fear of missing out, especially in introversion (“Di kala dia berteman, aku sibuk membisu” / “When they’re making friends, I’m busy staying silent”). However, this is not your usual Isyana song—she puts in elements of death and reincarnation (“Hidup hanya sekali saja, mungkin lagi tapi wujud berbeda” / “You only live once, maybe once more in a different form”), showing that she has indeed matured in her lyricism.

One of the two singles released for LEXICON prior to the album’s release, “untuk hati yang terluka.”, is the second song of the album. Listeners might say that this song seems like a conventional Isyana Sarasvati song, but if we listen a little bit closer we can see Isyana’s classical influences. The first piano interlude in “untuk hati yang terluka.” is definitely a more classical style rather than pop, shown by the waltz-style left hand piano pattern. She is also supported in other instruments by Barasuara guitarist Gerald Situmorang, who has forayed in jazz in his latest album with pianist Sri Hanuraga, Meta. She then sings with a piano instrumental similar to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” singing to her audience that everything’s going to be okay and failure is temporary. “untuk hati yang terluka.” is followed by “Pendekar Semesta,” an epic ballad that sings like a mantra about a grand promise.

The titular song, “LEXICON,” is the most experimental song out of Sarasvati’s body of work. She starts with a mellow arrangement of synths and vocal layering before erupting into heavy metal guitars and drums. However, Sarasvati doesn’t just go full punk rock in this song; her instrumentation reminds us of Dream Theater and other progressive metal bands that are still classically-influenced, so there still is a reminder of Sarasvati’s signature voice in “LEXICON.” She borrows some of the musical motifs she used in “Sikap Duniawi,” reinstating her own views of how life is a play. Her lyrics in “LEXICON” has the heaviest metaphors compared to those in the rest of her songs in the album, but we can still feel her rage out of the dominant guitars and fast, heavy drums as she sings “Kau kira selamanya mereka akan percaya / Tapi maaf waktu telah tiba” (“You thought they’ll believe forever / But sorry, the time has come”). I had my jaw dropped throughout the entire song after the guitars and drums start playing as I listen to “LEXICON” for the first time; this is so exciting for Sarasvati. It’s always a wonderful feeling to listen to a musician turn 180 degrees on their genre and still make it their own.

“ragu Semesta,” my favorite song in the album, has Sarasvati’s most powerful lyrics in her career. The song itself tells a story about two people that made a promise to be together, and eventually, that promise has to falter, since “ragu semesta tak terlamun oleh manusia” (“The doubts of the universe are unthinkable by humans”). The song’s music is akin to a Broadway musical song—it could be framed as one of those quiet songs where a female character reflects on her own storyline. Keyboardist Kenan Loui Widjaja’s string arrangement blends so well with Sarasvati’s piano composition, creating their own world in the song. The song finally culminates in a grand orchestral coda and a quiet, retrospective ending, while Sarasvati repeats the last parts of the lyrics: “Mungkin kita ‘kan bertemu, lain waktu, di alam yang baru” (“Maybe we will meet again, next time, in a different world”). “ragu Semesta” tells a sad, touching narrative in such a beautiful way.

“Lagu Malam Hari” and “biarkan aku tertidur” follows the same musical structure as “untuk hati yang terluka.”—a piano ballad marked by Sarasvati’s classical influences. Her use of diminished chords adds to the songs’ nostalgic feeling and retrospective nature. In “Lagu Malam Hari,” she compares a lover’s smile to the stars in the sky, tying in the album’s at-large lyrical theme of the universe and its grand forces. “biarkan aku tertidur” shows Sarasvati at her most vulnerable, and her lyrics at the most relatable. She sings about her unfulfilled dreams and how she wants to rest for a while and get away from the frustrations of the world. “biarkan aku tertidur” flawlessly blends to the album closer, “Terima Kasih,” an instrumental track purely from Sarasvati’s composition. After an album of listening to her vocals, we can listen to Sarasvati’s prowess in musical composition, especially through piano—we can also hear her classical background, especially reminding us of Maurice Ravel’s compositions.

All this to say, LEXICON shows us the musicianship Sarasvati is capable of unleashing. This—together with Kunto Aji’s Mantra Mantra—is one of the best Indonesian pop albums (both mainstream and sidestream) I have heard in a long while. I hope that with LEXICON, people would see her as one of Indonesia’s modern music geniuses, and she would be encouraged to explore more of her roots and beyond through her next releases. It’s an Album of the Year for me!

While you’re here, check out this author’s short writing on “ragu Semesta,” Descartes, and the meaningful people in your life, written in colloquial Indonesian and available on her personal blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s