Album Review: Yozoh – My Utility

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Release: July 23, 2013
Producer/Distributor: MagicStrawberry Sound/Mirrorball Music
Genre: Pop, folk rock
Reviewer Rating: 

We’re no longer in the era of the “Hongdae Goddess”, a term once used to describe a number of female singer-songwriters active in the Hongdae indie scene. But that doesn’t mean the “goddesses” died with the term: artists like Taru, Han Hee-jeong, and Yeonjin are still thriving, because their musicianship was not dependent on their status. They wore the title for a few years, but then they moved on and continued doing their thing.

We can add Yozoh to that list now. She wasn’t the first “goddess”, but she’s certainly the artist most associated with the moniker; six years after the album that defined her image, she breaks out of that image. 나의 쓸모 (My Utility) departs in a couple of bold ways from the style that we’ve come to expect from Yozoh. Whereas My Name Is Yozoh (2007) and Traveler (2008) were focused on bubbly, adorable appeals and accessible treatments of everyday topics, My Utility turns darker and more introspective. It employs moody instrumentation and refines Yozoh’s lyricism, a long-time strength.

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The difference is palpable early on. Opening track My Utility starts with a soft arpeggio and a subdued Yozoh in thought. Singing “Even though I don’t have much use in this world, I am here because // Mom and Dad embraced warmly one night”, she introduces the titular theme. Lead single Flowerpot follows, and it sounds like a mix of shoegaze and 1980s college-scene sound. Solemn guitar backing and heavy beat set the stage for cryptic treatment of an abandoned and ostensibly useless flowerpot. Peace Without Respite is in the same style.

I walked forward and the ocean got closer
And the fish moved
I walked backward and the ocean got further
And the fish moved

When I remained still
Nothing moved
To avoid being lonely
I had to keep walking

These are translated lyrics from the song, and they’re characteristic of the way Yozoh handles language all throughout the album. The terse expression isn’t new – she did this even in her work with Sogyumo Acacia Band – but the style of address is. Yozoh was always a storyteller; she would tell you about her day, about love, longing, dreams, and even heavier topics like death, and she would address you. In My Utility, she’s less worried about getting the story to you and more about expelling the stories out of herself. The original Korean reads like a soliloquy rather than a story with a listener. The artist says the song is based on a dream she had, and this truncated form – no beginning, no end – presents the story appropriately.

There are a few moments that harken back to Humming Urban Stereo and subsequent days, most notably People Like That. Even then, the same lithe vocals and harmless instrumentation are sometimes subverted. Washing Sheets and Mr. Smith are cheerful enough, but both have another layer or two under them; the former’s story has an untold and implied portion (she actually cuts herself off mid-sentence a few times) and the latter drops subtle hints of abnormal attachment.

But as interesting (and jarring) her new-found way of saying things is, the really striking thing about My Utility is how much of the album is spent not saying anything at all. There are many, many voids and lapses of lyrics, where lengthy instrumental breaks take their place. Every single track on this album has these, ranging from thirty seconds to a minute or more, placed as intros, interludes, outros and everything in between. Add in moments like the climaxes of My Utility and The Selfish, where Yozoh’s singing or humming takes a back seat to writing guitar or harmonica, and the amount of time spent with only instrumentals to keep you company increase further. Yozoh seems determined to explore the virtues of negative space.

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It’s a worthwhile experiment that yields dividends as well as losses. The moments that work – like Peace Without Respite’s unbroken guitar interludes and The Selfish’s frenetic closing minute, reminiscent of Raspberry Field‘s approach earlier this year – draw the listener in with intricate construction and emotional build-up. (Sometimes pay-off, too.) But there are also moments when songs drag on. Nayoung-i would probably have been better off if the excess had been trimmed off.

When this happens, structural looseness takes away from a listener’s concentration; for that reason, My Utility isn’t an easy album to get through in one sitting. Not an issue if you pick and choose tracks, but the problem is that that approach then robs the album of some of its power. Yozoh’s thoughts on need and purpose have the most impact when tracks like Flowerpot, People Like That, and more can all be grasped in tandem.

Despite that flaw, My Utility is successful at its important task: solidifying Yozoh’s footing outside of cute TV spots and easy-listening pop numbers. It’s the idea of Nostalgia (2008) fleshed out deeper and taken further. Like Taru before her (but to an even greater degree), the singer-songwriter has found a grounded voice to tell stories she couldn’t before and craft sounds she couldn’t play before. The goddess became mortal, but she shines all the brighter.

Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)

1. 나의 쓸모 (My Utility)
2. 화분 (Flowerpot)
3. 이불빨래 (Washing Sheets)
4. 안식 없는 평안 (Peace Without Respite)
5. 춤 (Dance)
6. Mr. Smith
7. 나영이 (Nayoung-i) – Featuring Lee Young-hoon
8. 그런 사람 (People Like That) – Featuring Ruvin
9. The Selfish (Album Version)
10. My Name Is Yozoh (33 Years Old Version)

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the reviewer and not of hellokpop as a whole.

Agree or disagree? Or have a recent release that you’d like to see reviewed? Let us know with your comments below! Requested albums will be considered each week and may be selected to be reviewed in the subsequent week.

Sources: Photo – Daum Music; Videos – msberrysound and Sunwoo Seo on YouTube
All translations are by the author.

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