Album Review: Park Ji-yoon – Tree of Life
Works on loss and pain are easier for us to handle when we can contextualize the loss. Among recent releases, Tablo‘s 열꽃 (Fever’s End) is the seminal work of this type – listeners went into the album knowing what the rapper went through, and naturally connected with it. Others are harder to deal with; we had no context for Yi Sung-yol‘s Why We Fail and its cryptic story of loss and redemption. Park Ji-yoon‘s eighth studio album 나무가 되는 꿈 (Tree of Life*) lies somewhere between those albums. We know, at least in part, what Ms. Park has been through: the slump that followed the polarizing hit of 성인식 (Coming-of-Age Ceremony), the inhospitable split with JYP Entertainment, the rumors that followed. In terms of female artists who have overcome a lot, she’s near the top with Baek Ji-young. And yet, Tree of Life isn’t really about any of that. Its themes, of lost and broken relationships and of recovery, don’t contextualize themselves for us. That puts this album in an interesting place.
But first, the basics. Tree of Life follows in the footsteps of its predecessor – 2009′s 꽃, 다시 첫번째 (Flower, Again the First). Park broke her six-year hiatus with a very well-made acoustic ballad album, a surprising turnaround from the dance-pop of her days past. She keeps tight reins on the new album, once again focusing on the acoustic scope and introducing a little folk and rock into the mix. Dear Cloud‘s Yong-rin returns to help direct the album, and Park recruits additional help from other renowned indie artists (No Reply‘s Kwon Sun-gwan and Mate‘s Jung Jun-il, for two), but make no mistake: this is Park Ji-yoon’s album. She wrote and composed the majority of these tracks, and the guest composers meld into the work’s overall tone.
That overall tone is sensitive and tender, and at the same time remarkably dry. The melancholia and mildness of opening track 그땐 (Then) is only a harbinger of things to come. Actually, it’s one of the livelier tracks; it crescendos and adds layers as it marches, never quite taking off, towards a controlled climax and denouement. And it follows some modern-rock conventions on the way. Such vibrancy is hard to find for the most part. The bittersweet melody and austere accompaniment of 오후 (Afternoon) and the grounded soliloquy of 고백 (Confession) are befitting of the songs’ ruminant post-love lyrics. These tracks lay the emotional foundation of Tree of Life, from which it never strays far.
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Confession, by the way, sounds like it could just be a Dear Cloud song with just the vocalist switched out. It’s a seamless fit for Park Ji-yoon. Her airy, delicate tone tends to glide over the music rather than take root in it like Nine‘s does, and her performance conveys insecurity and curtailed emotion. With that voice, Park makes 사랑하지 않아 (Don’t Love) hers as well: a very different track from Confession as well as from Mate’s usual style, the Jung Jun-il ballad is the simplest track on the album, but the vocalist packs a lot of nuance atop the nylon-guitar melody.
However, this unvarying vocal tone also lends itself to one of the album’s biggest issues. At its best, Park’s style is refined and quaintly evocative; at its worst, it is frustratingly boxed-in. These tracks – all of these tracks – play only to her natural strengths listed above; she refrains from asserting power or range or technique all throughout this album, even in a few parts that could have benefited from a step outside the comfort zone such as Then or the outro of 소리 (Sound). At these moments, Park’s usually effortless singing sounds nothing short of stifled. Even a traditional ballad like In Faded Memory would have helped, but nothing doing.
Which is why the album’s handful of uptempo tracks are so precious – they allow the vocalist to play a little. 너에게 가는 길 (Road To You) is the best one, as Park playfully hums a mellow cadence in a striking Park Ki-young impression. Aside from alternative-rock number 그 날들처럼 (Like Those Days), this handful also contains the closest thing to a dance track that Park Ji-yoon has done since 2003, in 그럴꺼야 (Probably So).
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But really, all this pales in comparison to this album’s centerpiece – lead single Tree of Life. I think this is what Park had in mind when she mapped out this album’s themes. It’s the culmination of everything that this album tries to do, every string and note of emotion that it embraces, everything that Park does so excellently. The ballad is grounded and melancholy on the surface, which is not unusual here. There is, though, a layer of brighter emotion hidden underneath. As Park soothes and caresses her way through the particularly gorgeous melody, singing of a healing process and dreamy respite, this layer seeps out periodically, like rays of sunlight shining through leaves. Yong-rin, the composer, manages this audible tension well, and lets it out in a controlled catharsis in the intermission: when the distorted guitar finally bursts out with the strings, that’s it. That’s the moment of release that Park’s vocals fall short of achieving elsewhere. She then simply rides this wave of emotion out, all the way to shore. It’s an exquisite ballad, and by far the most satisfying song of the album, even paired with its most abstract lyrics.
That brings us back to this “interesting place” that Tree of Life occupies, in the spectrum of loss-and-pain albums. I have no way of guessing Ms. Park’s intentions, but to me, the lead single’s chorus gives the answer. “The rope of deep despair // will tie you and me together // Rest here awhile // You can cry out loud // endlessly // Yes, endlessly”, she sings. If Fever’s End aimed to share with us a personal story of loss, and Why We Fail aimed to prepare us for loss, Tree of Life does neither: it instead creates an understanding, sympathizing resting place for those suffering from loss. Like the shades underneath a tree, hence the title. It’s not a perfect album, but I’d say it succeeds at that.
Here, she says it better than I can. The following are translated lyrics from the seven-minute closing track, Sound. (Most of the song is filled with wordless humming.)
Listen to my heart
Walk with me
Leave it there
My heart weeps
Upon my wet shoulders,
Please set your hands
Life in this world is
Breathing at the very end
So that we might rest a little easier
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
1. 그땐 (Then)
2. 그럴꺼야 (Probably So)
3. 오후 (Afternoon)
4. 나무가 되는 꿈 (Tree of Life)
5. 고백 (Confession)
6. 사랑하지 않아 (Don’t Love)
7. 너에게 가는 길 (Road To You)
8. 그 날들처럼 (Like Those Days)
9. 별 (Star)
10. Quiet Dream
11. 소리 (Sound) – Featuring Park Asher
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the individual and not of hellokpop.
Photo credit: maniadb
Video credit: parkjiyooncreative, appletreesubs on YouTube
All lyrical translations by the author.
* Official translation by agency. The literal translation reads “Dream of Becoming a Tree”.