Ever since her solo debut, Sunmi has dabbled in a variety of sounds and aesthetic influences, showing her as someone with a keen sense of musical theory and history. Yet, it has always had the firm, uniting bedrock of melancholy dance-pop. Her music has often taken the form of a salve, something to soothe a deeper pain. However, her newest EP, 1/6, takes a different pivot, opting to reveal her own pain and how she copes.
About eight months ago, Sunmi revealed that she has Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness that affects emotional regulation, self-image, and impulse control, among other things. And because she was diagnosed five years ago and has received treatment, many might assume that Sunmi is okay now; just like anyone else. But what 1/6 does is take us down through the walls and drive home just how hard it can be to live with a mental illness.
1/6 is structured very distinctively, opening with the most “normal” version of herself Sunmi has before stripping off the layers bit by bit. Opener “You Can’t Sit With Us” is the most accessible track. Fitting in alongside her previous hits like “Heroine” and “Noir”, “You Can’t Sit With Us” has glitzy 80s synths paired with heartbreaking vocals. Relying on female solidarity and viciously spurning her former paramour, Sunmi here is someone anyone could be in the face of a breakup. Yet, there is a discordant, sour undertone, clashing just a hair with the rest of the mix but giving the sense that all is not right.
This sense continues to grow in “Sunny”, which is also 80s-influenced but a little less Spandau Ballet and a little more Journey, with a strong bassline and classic arena rock drum rolls. Sunmi here is seductive, but concerningly. Her cooing and pleading enticements are not formed of passion for her newest lover. Rather, they are shot through with clinging desperation and a fear of abandonment. Any warm body will do, and Sunmi is perfectly willing to become something else if it means not having to be alone.
“1/6” is where the EP truly dives into its subject matter. While the first two tracks hinted at her demons, “1/6” lays them fairly bare. This is Sunmi looking for and using an off button. Confused, in pain, thoughts going around in circles, she unabashedly turns to drugs. More specifically, her prescriptions. The floating, otherworldly tones and 60s lounge riffs create a sense of serene calm that is far closer to anti-anxiety medication than any other high. While she does flirt with the line between use and abuse, Sunmi here has found a sliver of peace, a rare escape from her own feelings that is hard to begrudge her.
“Call”, on the other hand, serves as a dark mirror to “You Can’t Sit With Us”. Another angry break-up song, but while the former paints Sunmi as fairly reasonable, “Call” shows the distortions in her perception. She feels herself the wronged party, vengeful and bitter, called a “mad girl” . . . yet her ex is the one blocking her. Place that key detail against the warped synth tones, bubbling bass, and hatred in her voice, and suddenly her ex is the one trying to disconnect from a bad situation. Sunmi is righteously angry, convinced of her own victimhood, and oblivious to how it comes off to the person receiving her angry calls.
This is followed by “Narcissism”, easily 1/6’s most fascinating track. The instrumentation shifts constantly: delicate swirling chords, a pulsing drop, barebones bass-clef pre-chorus. The end result is EDM chaos, perfectly choreographed with Sunmi’s airy vocals riding the storm with weathered ease. That ease depressingly carries into the lyrics with Sunmi attempting to reconcile herself with the person in the mirror. She quite literally does not recognize her own reflection. While she is able to integrate that image and those actions with her own idea of herself, it is done with a familiarity that speaks volumes. A level of self-involvement that looks like narcissism is actually needed to preserve her mental health.
This leads us to the closing track, “Borderline”. More punk-influenced than usual, it is less a song and more a desperate plea to understand: this is Sunmi trying. On medication, having gotten help, and still judged for every slip-up. The agony in her voice as it echoes across the track is heartbreaking. She is not asking for a free pass but the recognition that she is doing her best, please support her successes instead of mocking her failures.
If 1/6 drives any point home, it is that living with Borderline Personality Disorder is excruciating and formative. What often comes off as clingy or self-obsessed has a cause in BPD. And while that is not an excuse, it should be remembered. There is a difference between true narcissism and needing to superglue your self-image back together. It’s harder to see the line of acceptability post- break-up when you also have a crippling fear of abandonment. And one that’s almost completely unsaid but very obvious to anyone with their own mental illness–sometimes you coat your issues in glitter and synths because it hurts less, and sometimes you have to strip it off if you want people to understand.
1/6 is a painful masterpiece, a brutally honest look into her psyche as Sunmi lays herself bare. And it is all the more powerful for it.
(Images via Abyss Company, YouTube)