Ah, springtime (or fall, if you’re from the land down under) — ’tis the season for female comebacks, it would seem. The ladies of K-pop are flooding the scene with new music, from SECRET to T-ara to 4Minute. Even the queen Lee Hyori herself is gearing up for what promises to be a show-stopping return to the stage after years of hiatus; with multiple teasers and industry whispers that her guitarist boyfriend Lee Sang-soon lent his talents to the album’s production, Hyori’s comeback may be the most highly anticipated of the year to date.
But Hyori isn’t the only single lady to grace us all with her presence at the moment (and no, I’m not talking about IU‘s first foray back into music after what surely was a grave illness brought a shirtless Eunhyuk to her bedside). The ever-stunning Younha has also made a quiet comeback, releasing a mini-album entitled Just Listen, her first significant musical release since last summer’s full-length album Supersonic. Six songs strong and led by the single “The Real Reason We Broke Up,” Just Listen is a challenging, well-rounded mini-album that plays to Younha’s strengths and signatures, but also demonstrates tremendous growth and daring creativity in an industry that could frankly use it.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
“The Real Reason We Broke Up” (우리가 헤어진 진짜 이유) is perhaps one of Younha’s most unique singles, a brash ballad that relies principally on acoustic instruments and Younha’s even-tempered, soulful vocals to drive the impact home. The melody is carried by a strong classical guitar accompanied by string arrangements and minimal percussion; as though in keeping with the classical theme, the music video features Younha and her estranged boyfriend (portrayed by Park Ki-woong) surrounded by graceful dancers executing flowing and careful choreography in various settings. Contrasted with the largely-still Younha and Park Ki-woong, they create a tension that is supported by the subtle shifts between major and minor chords and in the music’s intensity. It’s a world away from “Run,” but it’s also a world away from the maudlin ballads that Younha had marketed prior to her break with Lion Media — although it does seem as though Younha will never quite be able to get away from singing about failed relationships and looking generally depressed in her videos (not that I’d particularly care to have her follow more…er, mainstream trends and start approaching something like being stranded on what you think is a desert island much the way a six-year-old child reacts to a long car ride ::coughheywhatupSecretcough::).
Unlike “The Real Reason We Broke Up,” the title track “Just Listen” (featuring rapper Skull) is an experimental effort that begins with strong percussion and a leading piano melody that see the song to the end. Distinctly inspired by reggae and embellished by the gruff, husky vocals and rapping of Skull, “Just Listen” is bold and challenging for K-pop audiences. While it isn’t my favorite song (and I have to admit that Skull’s blending of reggae and K-pop, however artful, isn’t exactly up my alley), a few listens have led me to appreciate how Younha utilizes her vocal range and demonstrates her versatility. The arrangement and mixing is thoughtful, and overall shows a kind of growth and attention to detail that idol groups don’t necessarily demonstrate all that often.
“Fireworks” sees Younha go back to her J-pop and early K-pop roots in a fast-paced and electronically-driven pop-rock number. This song is busy and high octane; changes in speed are abrupt and almost leave the listener breathless. Younha’s soothing vocals create a nice contrast with the song’s general level of intensity. Personally, I’m not crazy about the song’s instrumentals and percussion, but for every song there is a season — this song would probably be perfect while driving in a convertible on a highway in Arizona, where cars are few and the speed limit is high.
The first thing one might notice about “One Fine Day” is the prominent use of the harmonica to establish the song’s melody and pace — seriously, can someone tell me the last time a harmonica carried a K-pop song? The only one that comes to mind is Jessica and Tiffany‘s “Talk To Me.” This is perhaps what I love most about Younha’s music — it packs a little bit of the unexpected into all nooks and crannies. “One Fine Day” is upbeat and cheerful-sounding, a song about new beginnings whose lyrics brim with colorful and refreshing imagery. If SISTAR‘s “Loving U” and Hyuna‘s “Bubble Pop” are K-pop’s traditional answers to the “song of the summer” question, I’d guess that “One Fine Day” would be Younha’s offering. Not too shabby. I’m particularly digging how evident Younha’s incredible vocal range is the last minute and a half stretch of this song. Good gracious, girl, did you just hit the note that I think you did?
“Spring” is the ballad that this album pretty much had to have; Younha’s lyrical voice does suit the ballad genre better than most, and to deny this mini-album at least one traditional K-pop ballad would be to do her a disservice. Unfortunately, there’s nothing very special about “Spring,” particularly given Younha’s pantheon of existing ballads (as well as the existing pantheon of near-identical K-pop ballads across the spectrum) — it is pretty standard in its tempo, its use of strings, and its overall temperament. However, it clocks in at an outrageous 5 minutes and 55 seconds. I can understand a killer ballad with a powerful climax maybe being this long, but this song is generally unremarkable and really does not need to be this long. You know it’s a problem when you realize halfway through your first listen that you’ve been listening to this song for an awfully long time and it’s still not over. Ballad fans will probably appreciate this number regardless of its length, but aside from being vaguely pretty and having some nice piano accompaniment, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before or won’t hear again.
Rounding out the album is “Sea Child,” another ballad-esque piece that packs a bit more of a punch than does “Spring.” Following the example set by “The Real Reason We Broke Up,” the arrangement is entirely bereft of percussion and is mostly upheld by acoustic instrumentation and Younha’s soft vocals, which she uses entirely to bring the song to its peak. Unlike “Spring,” “Sea Child” has a cathartic element not unlike Lena Park‘s “There You Go”; both songs demonstrate a level of musicality and vocal control that alone is enough to provoke a profound emotional response. While I dearly wish the song had ended on a firm note instead of with a fade out, it does have the feeling of bringing the overall effort full circle, and this is infinitely praiseworthy.
In a recent interview, Younha commented that her music was the type to console you late at night when you are alone. This is perhaps the most apt description I’ve ever heard, and it’s quite possible that I just wasted 1000+ words to get at this exact sentiment. However, I encourage you to listen to “Just Listen” — when you’re alone, when you’re feeling pensive, when you need consolation. Younha’s perfect voice makes this complex album sheer ear candy, and I think you’ll feel the same.