Younha - "Just Listen"

After last year's "Supersonic", which was a brilliant album inside out (and my favorite album of 2012!), honestly I was curious to see what Younha would put out next. It wasn't fear like the kind I have for idol groups who do well, but curiosity -- Younha is capable of brilliance and because last year she showed it with such mastery and effortlessness, the question this time around wasn't what she would do, but how she would do it. My curiosity was finally curbed, and to put it mildly I don't know why I was worried in the first place.

The thing about "Just Listen" is that it's confident, and this isn't the kind of half-hearted conviction most albums have -- this is brevity at it's finest. From beginning to end of each of the seven songs you can hear the thought and the creativity that went into every single element. But then again, there's nothing for this album to be afraid of -- Younha is more than capable as a singer, she doesn't have to hide behind her songs, and her repertoire this year is just as strong as it was last year, if not stronger.

"Just Listen" opens the album with guns blazing, to put it mildly. It's subdued and makes use of all these quaint elements, but as the rest of the album will eventually show in more detail, there is a huge difference between boring and subdued. "Just Listen" is definitely subdued. It's a gradual build-up of instruments, starting with the percussion, then the piano, then background vocals in the back, and that sustains itself for the entire song, with melodies and other bits and pieces being added on top of it at different parts. The melody that Younha sings is what really captures you from the beginning -- it's simple in theory, but in practice it's overflowing with conviction and mastery. It's confident, but that doesn't mean it's loud or even monotonously intense, it means that it knows when to push, and when to pull back.

But what ultimately keeps the song from just being a blank canvas slobbered with random elements is the fact that behind it all, that base of the percussion and the piano can hold their own against everything else. Those two loops that go on for the whole song, they're not that blank canvas. More than just contributing something to the song -- they actually make up most of it. By the most intense point of the song, it seems like the piano was completely drowned out, but it's still there, literally and not. Literally because it's still there, underneath everything, and not because the melody of the chorus takes off from that simple piano loop. "Just Listen" isn't just a boring intro with too long an instrumental and too much dead air from a lack of singing, because while the melody is really deadly-stunning, the same amount of artistry and thought was put into the rest of the song.

"Fireworks", to me, is that halfway point between "Supersonic" and "Just Listen" -- I love it. It has all the guts and smashing fake guitars-pop/rock that some of the songs on "Supersonic" (like "Rock Like Stars" and "No Limit") had, evident in the intro, the heavy use of guitars and that thumping beat behind, and basically in the entire verse. It's a familiar sound, that mid-range but push-heavy melody against that slightly agitated but sure instrumental, but what makes this a fusion of Younha last year and Younha this year is that slow but sure and very evident transition from that almost teenage-angsty verse, towards this equally confident, equally intense, but extremely more glorious chorus. It's like everything explodes into this ray of light with flowers coming out -- that's how it sounds, really. You'd think that the high notes make the song even more intense, but because of the nature of Younha's voice, they actually make it more graceful, more goddess-like. And that friction between those two very different sounds works -- it works because the friction is deliberate and it works because it wasn't done half-heartedly. What "Fireworks" is, then, is probably one of the best examples of friction-turned-fusion.

When I heard the first verse "The Real Reason We Broke Up" for the first time, I thought the rest of the song would turn out to be this very "commercial", very flat acoustic ballad that so many ballad singers have as their lead single. Thankfully, I was proven wrong soon enough. As a whole the song is gorgeous. It starts out nice and pretty, but quickly turns itself into this beautiful, memorable song. On the surface it's the melody that you really sit up and pay attention to -- that entire melody is a spark of brilliance in itself, especially at the verse where it shows off the extent of graceful conviction that the song has. But the more I listened to it, the more I realized that there are as many brilliant moments in the instrumental and the arrangement, as there are in the melody.

"The Real Reason We Broke Up", in all it's demureness, works almost ridiculously well because this isn't a generic melody on top of a stunning instrumental, nor is it a beautiful melody on top of a monotonous instrumental. There is a sort of push-and-pull going on with the instrumental and the melody, when one is at its peak, the other pulls back. There are times when the melody takes center stage, like in the beginning with the first verse and just a guitar in the background -- the melody is clearly what we have to pay attention to. But at the same time, there are times when the instrumental is the focal point. Apart from the shifts in dynamics and the transitions between verses and bridges, the instrumental is really the main element in the middle 8 because even if Younha is belting out the melody and those "oh oh oh"'s, it's the intensity and tension in the instrumental, that main guitar line in particular, that make that middle 8. It's because of these shifts in focus that "The Real Reason We Broke Up" is nowhere near being boring -- it may be gentle and graceful, but that doesn't mean it can't have dynamics, that it can't show strength and brevity.

"Spring" and "Unacceptable" were the songs I initially didn't respond as well to, but listening to them again it's very clear why they're on the album, and how they fit the sound. "Spring", as I see it, is a slap in the face to all these generic Drama OSTs that producers just churn out with little creative thought. "Spring" has all the canons of OSTs -- the vocals-piano tandem, the slow, almost lazy bass line, strings (a lot of it), the sharp-sounding high notes, the pseudo-chorus background vocals under belting, a key change, fake or not, and yet it's much, much more interesting and ear-catching than majority of those OSTs. At first I put it down to a gorgeous melody, but then it has sharp points too. When really, it's all about the execution. It's all about the arrangement. Notice that while "Spring" builds up a lot by the end of the song, like most OSTs, the build-up itself is very different. Much better-executed. There is enough variety in the way the song went about the build-up, enough to keep attention on it for the entire six minutes. Usually I'd notice if a song is six minutes, because you know, it's almost double the length of the average pop song, but with "Spring" I didn't, even when I wasn't that interested in it yet.

It was a similar case with "Unacceptable" -- it was boring at first. The chorus is piercing, the verses lacked prominent dynamics, all in all it was just a straight line for me. At first. "Unacceptable" is one of those songs you have to think about and concentrate on to appreciate, and while I like it a little less than the rest of the album, it exists as that obvious proof that "Just Listen" is an album you can, and in this case, should concentrate on. The melody during the verses is gorgeous, and the chorus is a grower. It may not be a song I like, but it's a song I appreciate and understand.

"One Fine Day" is the album's token dose of fun, and I love it. It's like this wonderful mishmash of a sitcom opening song, "People" from "Supersonic", and the rest of "Just Listen". It's whimsical, fun and youthful, with a playful melody, which is why up to now I'm still wondering how you can put a stomping beat with gutsy "oh oh oh"'s right smack in the middle of all that, and pull it off. But that's why I love "One Fine Day", it's fun with character. It's not like "To The Beautiful You" fun (which is still fun!) that's all TRALALALALALALA FUN. Like the rest of this album, it has guts, it has that little pinch of character to draw attention and to keep this from turning monotonous.

Of all the songs on this album, honestly it's "Sea Child" that will always, always be my favorite. Because it's simple. It's a melody on top of some strings, a bass line and a piano line. That's it. Because it embodies the direction of this entire album, and because it manages to be beautiful. There's so much underneath the melody, it's obvious that the arrangement was well thought-out but they carry a melody that doesn't need to be carried -- just because it sounds prettier. When the melody soars, the rest of the song soars with it, but each and every element can stand alone. That piano line probably sounds hauntingly beautiful on it's own. Because it elicits such complex emotions, and because I think that's what music should do. Emotion is created, is drawn out, from creativity paired with strong technical delivery -- it's more than just feeling sad, or feeling happy, it's thinking about what brings those out, and how to create those triggers. "Sea Child" succeeded at that. It's subdued, probably the most subdued song on the album, but in standard Younha fashion, it has some incredibly intense moments, something a lot of songs can't do with just a bass line, a piano line and some strings. Really, there's no other word for "Sea Child" but beautiful.

What I like the most about "Just Listen" is, without a doubt, how Younha has delivered some of the most beautifully stunning melodies in the most nonchalant way, as if melodies like that are normal, and as if everyone puts out songs like these (which they should!). While I think these melodies should be normal, most of the time they aren't, and so to hear Younha do these melodies the justice they deserve is definitely the best part of this EP. "Just Listen" is no-nonsense, it goes straight to the point, but it doesn't try too had either. There is a very, very obvious air of effortlessness underneath all the music genius, and that's what makes this album such a joy to listen to.

But while some albums stop at that, how some really gorgeous songs are just gorgeous, "Just Listen" goes one step further. This EP is without question a pop release, but in being just that, seven pop songs, it proves a point I have long tried to establish. That you can think about pop songs, that there are pop songs you can take apart and spend pages and pages discussing. The songs on "Just Listen" are those kinds of songs -- my favorite kind. Songs that are beautiful, but beautiful with substance and creativity. They are a joy to discuss, just as much as they are a pleasure to listen to.

5/5

4 comments:

  1. Awesome review. Glad you like the album as much as I do.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Are you sure you meant to say brevity? But other than that, squealIT'S-YOUNHA-AND-PRN-REALLY-LOVES-HER-NOW. As someone who's been an avid Younha fan for six years, it feels good to see you affirm that she's what I always felt her to be.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was waiting for you to review this! I love Younha's dedication to music and her consistency in producing the most enchanting melodies. You're absolutely right Nikki, Younha's releases are certainly "just" pop music, but it is pop music with spirit and elegance. I will always be looking forward to her next release with open arms. She proves herself again and again, even if this album doesn't top "Supersonic."

    And as always, beautiful review. (Plus, your two favorites are the same as mine! :D)

    ReplyDelete
  4. This review is so detailed I'm impressed I must say

    Smart move when "Just Listen" appointed as track number 1. It lift my whole mood up! why ooyoyooohh..

    Seachild is very touching in both lyric and melody

    Real Reason Why We Broke Up and Unacceptable have been made as MV is also not surprising. Tears'll flow if you're brokenhearted and listening to them

    Can't wait for her next full album. GO younha!!!

    ReplyDelete

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