It’s come full circle. A decade ago, the sounds and mannerisms of Brown Eyes (2001) were pathbreaking. The duo of Naul and Yoon Gun basically kick-started Korean medium-tempo pop that year, and the genre evolved and eventually dominated K-pop from 2005 to 2007. During that time, medium-tempo was hashed and re-hashed beyond any semblance of originality, every single element of With Coffee and 벌써 일년 (Already A Year) analyzed and copied to death. Today, Brown Eyes is still a seminal work, but its sounds and mannerisms are long past relevant.
So the hope for Naul, releasing his first solo album (apart from his 2005 remake collection) outside of Brown Eyes and Brown Eyed Soul, is that he’ll give us a similar paradigm shift. If such unrealistic expectations could be placed on anybody, it would be on arguably the country’s most adored R&B vocalist, no?
Principle Of My Soul isn’t quite that. Naul does give us fantastic vocal performances, as expected; the fault lies more with the compositions, which range from pretty good to just decent but never deliver an adequate counterpart to the vocal line. There’s also a curious sense of disconnect between sections of the album. Here’s what I mean by that.
Principle’s first four tracks are heavy with references to American R&B from decades past, to a level very rarely seen in the Korean mainstream. The lively funk of Soul Fever is just the beginning; 기억리듬 (Memory Rhythm) sweeps you off your feet with breezy string and reassuring brass, and You & Me is falsetto-laden and deliberately paced Philly soul done in Seoul. My Girl turns the clock forward a bit with its vibrant synth arrangement, yet it’s still got plenty of nostalgic devices.
There’s a fairly coherent (and indeed, unique) theme and direction up to this point, but then Principle does an about-face. Starting with Missing You, which is a predictable medium-tempo ballad of the Brown Eyes of old, we hear more and more sounds of the traditional ballad form.
Lead single 바람기억 (Memory of the Wind) is found in this section, and by this point we’re pretty far removed from the rich soul language spoken by Principle’s first half. So Memory speaks straight ballad, and it admittedly speaks it really fluently – ambitious arrangement and Naul’s explosive chorus give life to a simple melody. But in the end, these (and others like the hybrid soul track 이별시작 (Start of Parting)) are constrained by what Naul can do as a ballad singer.
That makes it sound like Naul isn’t good at that, doesn’t it? As I’m sure needs no repeating, Naul is a premier vocalist, and he’s on top of his game in Principle. His effortless, gliding notes and passionate melisma are as good as ever. It’s just that the first four tracks open up so many intriguing paths where he could take that talent (and for which he clearly has interest), that it’s a letdown when he doesn’t go further. Ultimately, it leaves Principle feeling like half an album. As good as that half may be.
Principle Of My Soul is still more ambitious of an album than most. And Naul hasn’t exactly failed to live up to his name; the stuff that we know and love from him is certainly in here. Maybe it’s too much to ask for Brown Eyes’ debut album again. Nevertheless, the glimpses we get here – disco, funk, soul, Philly, gospel, urban contemporary, and more – are positively tantalizing, and make me think that actually, it’s not too much to ask for… not just Brown Eyes, but something even greater.
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
1. Soul Fever
2. 기억리듬 (Memory Rhythm)
3. You & Me
4. My Girl
5. Missing You
6. Love Dawn
7. 바람기억 (Memory of the Wind)
8. 이별시작 (Start of Parting)
9. 여전히 난 (I Still)
10. Stone of Zion
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the individual and not of hellokpop as a whole.
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