Album Review: Yi Sung-yol – Yosedreamyose

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Release: June 30, 2017
Label: Fluxus Music
Distributor: Windmill ENT
Genre: Alternative, blues rock

Once upon a time, Yi Sung-yol was riding a burgeoning discography in the realm of alternative and rock-ballad, culminating in the critically-acclaimed Why We Fail (2011). That he turned away to experiment with very different kind of music was a surprise: in the feverish dream of V (2013) and then the cool-and-collected SYX (2015), Yi crafted genre-fluid material that was often dissonant and difficult. These two albums mapped out some incredible visions, but perhaps sacrificed accessibility and interpretability in doing so. 요새드림요새 (Yosedreamyose), Yi’s sixth studio album (and the first since 2011 to not have a confusing numeric title), is at once a return to roots and another chapter of the experiment.

In the most noticeable departure from the previous two works, Yosedreamyose is an easy listen. Its compositions and arragements are soft and carefree; Yi draws heavily from the bluesy vibes that have undergirded his work to date. Drawn-out piano and guitar notes atop ponderous toms characterize opening track “Jinaganda”, as Yi’s reassuring croon drives the melody. From the fuzzy plucks and 3/4 rhythm of “Cupblues” to the organ-backed folksy melody of “I Saw You”, this laid-back atmosphere is a recurring theme throughout the album. I once wondered if Yi would ever take one-off diversions like “Their Blues” and “Bluey” (the titles sure give it away) and spin them off into a full album; Yosedreamyose might be as close to that as we’ll get.

Yi sung-yol’s songs often have this exquisite propensity to show us sudden, unexpected moments of beauty. A track would be plodding on, pleasant enough but maybe not striking, when the lull is broken by a subtle chord change, or a rest, or a new melody that squeezes in, and it’s as if the song crystallizes into something much more at that moment. He does this without regard to genre or style – I’ve heard it in his ballads (“The End of Waiting”) and psychedelics (“Satin Camel – Ocean Once”), but blues rock is a particularly good medium for it, as rich it is with atmosphere. The first time a chord appears in “Jinaganda”, the backing guitars briefly shifting to higher notes about two and a half minutes into “Cupblues”, and the crashing pianos that herald the final chorus of “My Own” are three of several such moments. They’re a joy to discover, and are viscerally felt.

The sounds are accompanied by words brimming with life. There’s not really any sort of narrative coherence à la Why We Fail, but the warmth and activity in these lyrics provide a kind of thematic coherence instead. “Jinaganda” paraphrases a 1964 poem by Kim Soo-young, seeking a generational reconciliation by seeking to walk in others’ shoes. “I Saw You” is an ode to the human spirit, with Yi calling himself a “hope addict” for optimism that springs daily despite the world’s deceptions and disappointments. The simple fact that the lyrics are so affable – and usually do not have a cryptic layer to unravel – is a strong factor in making Yosedreamyose more relatable than its predecessors.

And yet, in important ways, the album makes clear that it’s progressing from V and SYX, not regressing back. For once, Yi has brought over the intriguing, viscous approach to atmosphere found in those albums. This is audible even in those slower bluesy tracks, in the way that he almost always fills the backgrounds with some sustained instruments rather than leave them empty. It really shows up when the instrumentation departs from the standard band set: “Dosie” (meaning “Love For City”, appropriately) creates urban dread with ominous pads, while “Vulture”‘s synth-augmented hi-hat and discordant pianos set the tense buildup to an energetic chorus.

That varied arsenal of instrumentation is itself another fruit of all the experimentation. I can imagine few artists with the gusto to pull the blues-heavy first half of this album together with “Dosie”, or the electronic sentimentality of “Dream”, not to mention the technical expertise to arrange and perform almost all of it solo. It allows for just a little quirkiness to creep in, too: the aggressive and unpredictable “Smmfot” probably doesn’t work without the disturbing beat that mixes a pounding drum track with an arpeggio of bells and synths.

It’s a persuasive package. Yosedreamyose harnesses Yi sung-yol’s many strengths, and reflects the diverse musical worlds he’s crafted in the past, into a familiar-yet-novel hue. It does not seem to be his most grandiose album, nor the most experimental, nor the most coherent; but there is no need for it to be any of those things. A great album will stand even without comparisons, and it is this evenhanded, quiet confidence that defines Yosedreamyose.

Tracklist (recommended tracks in bold)

  1. 지나간다 (Jinaganda)
  2. Cupblues
  3. 도시애 (Dosie)
  4. I Saw You
  5. Smmfot
  6. My Own
  7. Vulture
  8. 검은잎 (Black Leaf)
  9. Dream

All tracks composed, written, and arranged by Yi Sung-yol.

Sources: Photo – Yi Sung-yol official Facebook

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