The Korean music industry is packed with talent, and churns out content at breakneck speeds. In the midst of such a crowded scene, it is rare for a release to feel totally unique, to emphatically deny comparison or categorization. One exception to the rule is Sulli’s slim 2019 EP Goblin. Rather like Sulli herself, who participated in the creation of all three of the album’s tracks, Goblin is defiantly distinctive. In under twelve minutes total, Sulli draws listeners into a fantastical world that is as brutal as it is beautiful.
That Goblin exists at all feels like a minor miracle. The album’s summer 2019 release was an out of the blue event. Sulli had seemingly left music behind when she departed from beloved experimental girl group f(x) in 2015, with the official reason given being that she wanted to focus on her acting career. Even as a member of f(x), Sulli had arguably been more connected to her identity as an actress in the public eye. But here she was, her feature on Dean’s “Dayfly” her only music credit from 2015 to 2019, about to make her solo debut.
Therefore, Goblin not only had to be good, it had to introduce Sulli as a soloist to a public that, one way or another, had a strong image of her from her years in the spotlight. The EP handles this heavy load brilliantly, cleverly playing into yet distancing itself from Sulli’s bold persona. Lyrically and tonally, the album is as intrepid, whimsical, and refreshingly blunt as Sulli herself. But visually and musically, Goblin adopts an otherworldly sound and aesthetic that places the album, and consequently Sulli the singer, outside of the grasp of the real world.
The MV for same-named title track “Goblin” illustrates this balance. The bulk of “Goblin” takes place in a rundown mansion that hosts three different versions of Sulli, distinguished by their different styling and mannerisms. There is a Sulli that is dressed in a childlike way yet seems thoughtful and calm, a playful Sulli in several voluminous and brightly colored dresses, and an assertive Sulli costumed like some sort of dark goddess. This trio of Sullis can easily be seen as a metaphor for Sulli’s varied and sometimes conflicting public personas. However, the dreamlike visuals of the MV prevent its story from being taken too literally.
The mansion and its grounds, populated by the Sullis, three mischievous teenagers, and a number of stone-faced impressionistic dancers, are clearly somewhere out of our time and space. The quirkily cheerful song, with its twinkly percussion and whispered backing vocals, amplifies this impression. There is something menacing about the whole affair, but its unreality makes it more odd than threatening. The MV is also introduced, through explanatory text at the start, as a story about a woman with dissociative disorder juggling three alternate personalities. While dissociative disorder is a very real illness, it is not one that Sulli had as far as is known, so this story structure adds another layer of separation from Sulli’s actual life.
As much as it sets itself apart from reality though, “Goblin” also tackles intense and genuine ideas. The MV opens and closes with Sulli speaking from a bare bones room, seemingly in character and sharing the story of this woman who has dealt with dissociative disorder. But much of what she says could be applied to Sulli’s own experiences, and the scenes hit hard because of that. “I think they all disappeared. Would not it be better for everyone to disappear?” is the haunting final question of “Goblin”. The MV thus finds a brilliant balance between whimsical fantasy and bleakly grounded emotion, just like the whole of Goblin.
In this unique artistic atmosphere, Sulli flourishes. There are unfortunately little to no live performances of “Goblin” or any other song on the album. However, Sulli is a confident actress in the “Goblin” MV, contrasting with her sometimes criticized lack of presence during f(x) promotions. Her voice also feels right at home in Goblin’s dreamy soundscape. For instance, in “On the Moon”, Sulli stays in an high and airy vocal place during the entire song. If “On the Moon” had the booming layered production of a typical K-pop track, she would be totally drowned out. Instead, the song compliments her vocal style with its restrained beat, light guitar riff, and electronic accents.
Goblin works well because it meets its artist where she is, working with rather than fighting Sulli’s tastes and strengths. The EP is also successful because of its narrow focus. This allows the three-track release to fully explore one topic, as opposed to shallowly touching on several.
The subject at hand is the idea of multiple selves, in terms of self perception, in the sense of inner emotions that push and pull, and in the eyes of others. “Goblin” examines this theme in the most straightforward way, through its visually arresting MV. But “On the Moon” and “Dorothy” also tackle the idea of all the competing and conflicting characteristics one person can hold, and the shockingly different ways a single individual can be looked upon and judged.
Sulli’s lyrical approach is poetic rather than literal. She alludes instead of spelling things out. This is actually one of the secrets behind the emotional punch that Goblin packs, because the impact of an idea that a listener is guided into discovering on their own is always greater in comparison to a concept that is spoon-fed to them. This style can make the dominant topical theme of Goblin a little hard to spot though, at least at first. However, things slowly come into focus, with each song dominated by dualities.
In “Goblin”, Sulli is having a bad day and “it’s just okay. I’m pretty sick of it, it’s true” simultaneously. She deceives and comforts, threatens and charms throughout, all with the backing of the song’s off-kilter yet joyful musicality. In “On the Moon”, Sulli is “My happy girl, your happy girl” even as she rapidly flips between romantic certainty and doubt. And in “Dorothy”, Sulli is a million people all at once:
Dorothy of jealousy, Dorothy of love, Dorothy of truth
Gorgeous Dorothy, coco taste Dorothy, cowardly Dorothy
Dorothy in the desert, Dorothy of the iceberg, underground Dorothy
Dorothy a cold medicine, delicious Dorothy, Dorothy Dorothy Dorothy
There is also a further wrinkle to Goblin‘s theme of multiple selves, which is the overriding sense that Sulli is all of these things, but somehow none of them is enough. She is constantly battling rejection and disappointment. Even the love she does get seems fleeting and fragile. Musically, soft sweetness fills Goblin, but so does bitter melancholy. Chords rarely linger long in cheerful major keys, and melodies drift slowly but surely towards resigned tragedy. Lyrically, Sulli’s thoughts also inevitably travel into the realm of sorrow. Again, “Dorothy” is the strongest example:
Dorothy Dorothy Dorothy
It didn’t mean anything, I had hope, an imaginary fool
Buried in the world, the air is empty, forgotten dreams
Forgotten dreams, your little song, a gray sky
Even if paradise doesn’t exist, deep in the water
Pray for the future, pray for the future
For such a sliver of an album, Goblin accomplishes a great deal. It is a remarkably cohesive and compelling release, presenting a darkly entrancing mix of aesthetic fantasy with emotional reality. Goblin is also a stunning showcase of Sulli’s artistic potential. Anyone who encounters Goblin is unlikely to forget it for a long while after listening. Indeed, Goblin could be called haunting based solely on its musical qualities and emotional message. However, there is no denying that the shadow of history also hangs heavy over the album.
It is almost unfathomable to think that the person and artist who created Goblin would be gone only a few months after the album’s release. In the wake of Sulli’s passing, the public have shown her the appreciation that she never really got when she was living, celebrating her extraordinary courage and independence.
Even with the personal tributes flowing in, Sulli’s music and artistry haven’t necessarily been equally lauded. Goblin shows that is a mistake. Alongside all the many, many reasons to wish that Sulli was still brightening our world with her vibrancy, it can be added that it would have been a delight to see the solo artistry that she so brilliantly introduced in Goblin grow and blossom.