In the past three years,박혜진 Park Hye Jin has moved from Seoul to Melbourne to London to Los Angeles. Before I Die, her first full-length, which she made entirely during the pandemic, excavates the feelings of isolation and vulnerability triggered by those transitions: the injustice of feeling wronged, the ache of familial longing, the loss of her sense of self. Where 2018’s breakthrough EP If U Want It and 2020’s How Can I EP focused on dreamy house production with forays into experimental club, juke, and techno, Before I Die expands into trap, industrial techno, and downtempo alongside her typical atmospheric house productions. She also incorporates more storytelling into her lyrics this time, using Korean to illuminate specific incidents and English to convey her feelings in broad strokes. At its best, the album explores the contours of an emotional journey in space and time. Occasionally, though, scattered moods and unfocused songwriting blunt the record’s impact.
Hye Jin frequently explores the way that loneliness can open up into emptiness. A soft haze hangs over much of her production, as if suggesting the fluidity between her conscious and subconscious. On the wistful “Let’s Sing Let’s Dance,” her husky vocals—“I sing on sad days,” goes the Korean-language refrain—drift over lounge-y piano chords and a mellow four-on-the-floor thump. On “I Need You,” twinkling piano lines and skittering hi-hats suggest the feeling of being kept awake by restless thoughts: “I’m up all night again,” she sings, in Korean. “It seems only the moonlight knows where you are.” On the title track, her longing takes on an almost aquatic quality as a blurry, marimba-like synth motif buoys her plaintive English-language vocals: “I miss my mom/I miss my dad/I miss my sister/I miss my brother.”
Before I Die is full of references to days and nights and the patterns that repeat within them. “Good Morning Good Night,” for example, is a sort of numbed-out recitation of quotidian gestures. From within a reverb-heavy echo chamber reminiscent of a Grouper song, Hye Jin drawls, “Good morning, good night/It’s already evening/How was your day?/Hope you had a good day.” Her tone feels intentionally inert, a way of pointing up the meaningless repetition of going through the motions. By contrast, on her dancier tracks, she shakes herself out of these doldrums into a different space-time continuum altogether: that of the club. On the housey “Where Are You Think,” a metronome-like tick cuts through a crunchy, bass-heavy beat as Hye Jin hypnotically repeats the titular phrase. Meanwhile, the industrial techno track “Hey, Hey, Hey,” utilizes repetition as a means of suspending time, which is, after all, what good club music does.
But there are times when Hye Jin’s repetitive, minimalist production becomes static, almost generic, particularly on trap tracks “Sunday ASAP” and “Whatchu Doin Later.” Elsewhere, the lyrics themselves grate. “Never Give Up” is built around the heavily repeated refrain, “When they treat me just like bullshit.” “Can I Get Your Number” opens with a simple two-track loop vaguely reminiscent of the wobbly bass and finger snaps of a Bay Area hip-hop track, which ought to give the artist plenty of space to flex. Instead, Hye Jin loops her voice into an unconvincing imitation of a ghetto-house track: “We can fuck I wanna fuck.” On “Sex With ME (DEFG),” which can be read as a sequel to IF U WANT IT’s “ABC,” she raps, switching between English and Korean, “Don’t be shy, say it’s OK, just leave it up to you, say I’m your dad.” Perhaps pent-up pandemic horniness is partly to blame, but on both occasions, her entreaties sound forced and awkward.
And yet, listening to the rest of the album, it’s easy to see how this attempt at a hard, brash exterior likely has to do with self-protection. Hye Jin has, after all, been screwed over by scammers (“Never Give Up”), doubted by those around her (“i jus wanna be happy”), and uprooted not only from loved ones (“Before I Die”) but also from herself. On the album’s most personal song, “Where Did I Go?,” the artist looks to fill her loneliness not with sexual, romantic, or even familial intimacy, but rather with connection to herself. Against a gauzy curtain of jazz piano chords, Hye Jin reminisces about an image of cotton candy, now lost, that she used to draw as a child. “Where’d it go?” she repeats, as if finding it would allow her to unlock some essential part of herself. Yet try as she might, she can’t. Her longing curls around itself, as if circling a drain, before disappearing once again into shadow.
Buy: Rough Trade
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