Slipping Away with Nell
Nell is a four-man indie-progressive rock band, originally formed in 1999 and mentored by the legendary Seo Taiji. The band is currently signed under Woollim Entertainment, the label also known for housing Infinite as well as Epik High in the past.
The band consists of Kim Jong-wan (vocals, guitar, keyboard, composer), Lee Jae-kyung (lead guitar), Lee Jung-hoon (bass), and Jung Jae-won (drums). Nell’s music tends to take on a gloomy, poetic and psychedelic color, with musical influence from British progressive bands such as Muse, Radiohead, and Coldplay.
For a more detailed overview of Nell’s history as well as their previous musical hits, some of you might want to check out our past Indie Gem segment on the band.
It’s been four long years since the group last released their 4th studio album — Separation Anxiety (2008) — which won them the title of Golden Disk Award Best Rock Artist of that year. After successfully completing their mandatory military service, the group is finally breaking out of hiatus with their 5th studio album Slip Away (2012). The highly-anticipated album was released on April 10th, and easily swept the real-time charts shortly after release.
Slip Away still retains the sound of their past works, but with a more acoustic and careful approach. Let’s take a look at its tracklist:
1. The Ending
Continuing with the motif of moving forward, the song that begins with “On your mark… get set… and go,” at first sounding positive and ready to get on with life after the conclusion of a relationship. However, after the third repetition of this phrase, he continues with “… just go…” and the command turns out to be a plea, instead. Nell is tortured by memory as he runs through a clouded, crashing world with tears streaming down his face. In the end, he admits that “the one who can’t seem to forget is I, not you,” and the repetition of the first line of the song at the very end shows the continuation of his desire to move on from his frozen past, but the effort seems futile because he never arrives at a destination.
3. In Days Gone By
This is a mid-tempo track with a more introspective feel. Like the previous track, it is laced with attachment to a past relationship, but rather than trying to run away from his memories, Nell now immerses himself in nostalgia and reasons the puzzle pieces of the past. His mind seems more clear now even if just as sad.
4. The Day Before
The music video for this song stars the actors Lee Min-ki and Song Jae-rim. The video begins with Min-ki scribbling down the last words to his lover inside a notebook. There is a shot of Jae-rim putting a lens on his camera. A piano note sounds. The camera case snaps closed. Min-ki finishes what he is writing, and turns the page. There is an overhead shot of a coffee cup with a bit of residual liquid remaining at the bottom. Coffee is poured into the cup. A snare drum sounds and the song begins.
Jae-rim sets up his camera as Min-ki sits at a table in front of him, flipping through the pages of a book. The book is revealed to be John Berger‘s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. He pauses on a page, and begins reading. Jae-rim watches him from across the table as the camera begins to record. As Min-ki takes a sip from the coffee cup, Jae-rim strikes up a conversation, and they smile. The coffee cup is set down, and Min-ki resumes his reading.
They continue to talk, but the conversation is more serious now. Min-ki closes his book and sets it down. He reaches for a vial containing poison and pours its contents into his cup of coffee. He calmly takes a sip from his cup, and sets it down. It’s a similar shot to the one in the beginning, with the bit of residual liquid swirling around at the bottom of the cup. Once again Min-ki says some serious words, then smiles. They both look sad. Drowsiness begins to overcome Min-ki. His head and his eyelids begin to droop, and his vision begins to fade out of focus. Still, he continues to smile, and continues to talk. Jae-rim is tearing up now. Min-ki continues talking, until the poison has run its course. His head falls back. He is dead.
Jae-rim drops the toy elephant he had been playing with at the table. There’s another under-table shot at his feet, now motionless, and we see that Min-ki is no longer there. The seat is vacant. Jae-rim reaches up to turn off the camera. Min-ki’s last pose, with his head thrown back in death, is frozen on the preview pane. The camera clicks shut.
The music video is stunning as it reaches down into a quiet, emotional core. What strikes me the most is the starkness; not a single moment is wasted nor superfluous, and even the smallest details (the fidgeting of a foot, the twitch of a finger, the close-up of the drying flowers) jump out at you and hold meaning. Even more than that — despite the quiet and the calm, emotions run thick in the open spaces that are created between the piano chords of the ballad. You are allowed to breathe, but only at the pace that has been set.
It’s even more stunning when you realize afterwards what exactly was happening in the MV. There are quite a few valid interpretations floating around out there, but here is my personal take on what happens: Min-ki commits suicide by taking a poison, and has filmed it. His ex-lover Jae-rim recreates the scene and watches the posthumous playback of the reel. Transported through space and time into the past, he strikes up a conversation with Min-ki. They talk about things that they were unable to say to each other’s face during the time that Min-ki was still alive. The shots at the very beginning of the video, before the music starts, actually happened at the chronological end. The actual content of the video reel was Min-ki writing his last words, which he left behind on paper. The conversation never really happened. As Jae-rim packs up the camera and flips the case shut, all that remains at the scene is a coffee cup, with a bit of stained, clear liquid at the bottom.
There’s another piece of the puzzle at 1:48 in the video, which is that when Min-ki first flips through the book, he lands on a particular passage:
While I had tentatively sourced this passage to be from a poem called “A View from Delft,” our lovely commenter Ediupe informs us that it is actually from “”3. Leaving,” a part of 8 Poems on Emigration. The collection, which appears in Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos ruminates on what it means to be uprooted, to be away from one’s origin, and to build home.”
The book itself is an examination of new ways of looking at love, displacement and loss — the dead and the living — in relation to language, space and time. Indeed, in the music video, through the visual medium of film and through words, the dead is preserved and allowed to live on in memory. In the lyrics, Nell muses:
I wonder if we’re sometimes standing in the same memory.
I wonder if sometimes, time has stopped for you too
Thinking hard about it alone, the words that let you go.
It won’t ever reach you – the words that let you go.
Although I am not intimately familiar with John Berger’s work, his philosophies about continuity, perspective and memory are central not only to this video, but the idea of this album as a whole. If you’re interested in further delving into his philosophies in relation to Nell, I suggest you check out the musings over at Project Musictology. Warning: your mind may be blown.
The song reflects the music video in that no sound is wasted and every last detail counts.
5. Standing In The Rain
This track starts out with claps, which continue on into the song even as additional layers of different instruments are added over time. There’s also an interesting use of vocal chants in the background. I particularly love Kim Jong-wan’s vocals in this track, and the lyrics to this song are also my favorite from the album. The song starts out with an elegant, melancholy calm, but slowly escalates and builds up to a feeling of hope over time.
After a tortuous phase in the post-breakup period, Nell has finally reached a milestone where he realizes that there’s no point in holding onto the bad memories and continuing to self-inflict pain. And although “It won’t be easy, when the tears that the leaving heart had to shed and the ones shed by the heart staying behind were so uneven,” in the space where he has let go of the painful moments, good memories worth remembering still remain. Sincerity spills out of him in the form of tears alluded to by “rain”; there’s almost a relief in the way that he gives himself up his feelings, this time embracing them rather than pushing them away.
6. Losing Control
The constant ticking of the clock for the duration of the song is what really pulls it together. The song has been stripped down to its bare essentials: a metronome (which produces the ticks), an acoustic guitar, a triangle, and a voice. The slow and steady ticking is relentless and belies the hidden layer of rage barely contained within calm confines of the song. The twang of the guitar that alternates with the soft ting of the triangle is startling at times. It’s almost as if the ticking is in place for a bomb that will go off at any moment, except the ticking doesn’t stop; the line of tension is drawn taught, yet always just below the breaking point.
Honestly, this song scares me. Which, I suppose, means that it’s doing its job. The song also marks a turning point in the album, as the songs afterwards start to become less restrained.
7. Beautiful Stranger
“Beautiful Stranger” is also sung in English. It describes someone that Nell barely knows, and yet finds himself deeply connected to.
There’s definitely more of the older Nell sound in this song, as well as in the next few tracks on the album. Its composition fits together layers of electronic rendering, noise distortion, and echoes in addition to an interesting array of beats and rhythms.
8. Cliff Parade
9. Hopeless Valentine
Feelings begin to grow now; just from the start of the song you feel a swell in emotions rising into a fluttering yet self-deprecating sense of hope. The song and the feelings powerfully surge forward despite Nell’s misgivings. I found the lyrics of this song to be particularly poignant and poetic.
10. Slip Away
This is a personal interpretation, but I envision this last track to be the dialogue that Min-ki had written down on the notebook in “The Day Before.” The lyrics describe his fear of being forgotten, which runs even deeper than the fear of being alone. It is fear drives him to attempt to create an everlasting memory (and thus an extension of immortality) in his lover’s mind. The lyrics denote:
I never meant to hurt you
Only meant to tell you
That I am still in love with you.
The interesting thing about the album is that neither the beginning, or the end, conclusively feel like a beginning or an end. In a way, the beginning is an end, whereas the ending leads back to the beginning — the songs in the album as well as the emotions involved may very well be doomed to cycle on forever with no end in sight.
To me, Nell’s album is a breath of honesty in the middle of the busy hustle-and-bustle of the flashy K-pop mill. It’s thoughtful, poignant, and carefully crafted into one package. What really stands out to me is that this is an album that was specifically designed to be listened to as a cohesive album and not just a collection of songs that jump aimlessly around. The album has a continuity and brings us on an emotionally turbulent journey. Yes, it was heartbreaking and downright depressing at times, but Nell manages to turn the tragic melancholy into something beautiful that you’re drawn back to time and time again. In addition, each of the living and breathing songs held a story of its own that was connected to the album as a whole.
Compared to the band’s previous work, the sounds on the album are much more carefully constructed and bare. However, I felt — especially in the first half of the album — that the songs took it a bit too far in that direction at times. Where in its previous works, the band sometimes ran the risk of going for overkill on the noise and the layering, this time around at a few points in the album they ran the risk of crossing over into stagnancy. That being said, there’s a new maturity in their evolved sound. It’s the quieter moments on the album that really catch a hold of you and take your breath away. And the sound is still very distinctly Nell, just refined and broken down into the most simple of elements, and the barest of emotions.
Album Rating: 4.8/5.