Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

AMNESTY 2011: IU – The Story Only I Didn’t Know

Shockingly, not everybody is on board with a fulsome ballad.


Iain Mew: I’m getting more and more into pop in languages other than English. There is a clear split with it though, by which crazy uptempo songs, or even non-crazy midtempo ones, are much more easily enjoyable than ballads. Ballads, with the meaning of the words generally closer to the centre of their appeal, put up a much higher language barrier. Translations don’t do it for me; I do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings. There are a few exceptions to this ballad rule, though. I don’t need to understand a word of Anna Tsuchiya’s “黒い涙” to know that it’s the best power ballad ever. And IU here, well, I can appreciate the pretty piano figures and slow drip of guitar and strings. I can appreciate the sense of space, the way that it toys with going all full power blast but always holds something back. Most of all, I don’t think I’ve heard a music box style intro this affectingly fragile since Britney’s “Everytime”.

Frank Kogan: IU’s voice is small and grave, and the emotions are gigantic. This works because she lets the strings hint at something big — romantic seashores, lonely sunsets — while she remains precise and utterly concentrated. So you get the sense of someone tracing and retracing a tragedy.

Michelle Myers: A good ballad is like a good evening gown. It must be elegant, classical, and floor-length. Because the form allows for little play or experimentation, the design and execution must be flawless. “The Story Only I Didn’t Know” is like a well-tailored prom dress. It fits well; the melody is both memorable and interesting. IU’s voice is sweet, if a little breathy for my tastes. Unfortunately, the instrumentation — digital string swells, smooth-jazz guitar, and what I assume to be a goddamn glockenspiel — feels like sequined polyester to me.

Jer Fairall: Stately, poised and clear of any pop-like abstractions, like the showpiece of a Broadway show that I would never be in the audience for.

Anthony Easton: How come French pop at its most sentimental reminds me of Korean pop at its most romantic? This is ludicrous — saccharine, with a piano line that is a slowed down “Theme from A Summer Place“, but it hits that French/Korean axis and I am in love.

Brad Shoup: This is not how maudlinism hits. Not that I have a working definition, but it seems the difference between a successful overemotional tack and IU’s is primarily in the vocal approach. Mary Weiss’ streetwise woundedness cut a channel right through to the teenage id. IU, however, comes through as a youth trying to bluff adolescent heartache into an adult frame. Good maudlin music lets one revel in a world of rampant emotion, instead of pretending it’s a rational response. And this bloodless presentation is eminently reasonable: an unsurprising arrangement of soap-opera piano, music-box and strings that hits all predicted marks. So maybe it’s the music, after all: my reaction may show a bias for rhythm (as in these songs from Han So Ah). IU exercises control that’s technically admirable, but on a canvas this beige, control is nothing to root for.  

Katherine St Asaph: The song’s slight, but it’s interesting to me because IU sounds eerily like Sarah Brightman in her quietest vocal mode, and the strings aren’t far off either. This is the second time I’ve compared a J-pop or K-pop song to Brightman lately; considering that she’s really big in Asia, there’s got to be something to this, something about how the form values restrained romanticism in arrangements and glass-tone vocals that read as purer than life. Those are the classical crossover values, at least. Someone with more knowledge will have to finish the comparison from the other side.

Alfred Soto: Even Sarah Brightman needs Disney soundtrack anthems.

Jonathan Bradley: I don’t mind syrup, but a voice this fragile tends to dissolve in it.

Josh Langhoff: I was gonna make some crack about how Korean dentists’ offices need music too, but then I imagined myself lying there staring up at the cruel “Smile” poster on the ceiling, unable to move except at my tormentor’s commands, his drill and pokey thing probing beyond my vision or feeling, forcing me to focus my breathing as I waited for that inevitable moment when my entire body would twitch with pain — and then this song comes on, in all its eggshelled stillness, and IU’s breathing becomes the focus. Her bargain: if I give her all my attention, her stillness, shackles, and pain will deliver me from my own.

Jonathan Bogart: I know we live in a multimedia age, and MVs are the delivery system, not singles, it’s ridiculously limiting and missing the point to just isolate the song away from the narrative of the idol’s career, the video’s story, the fan discourse around it all. Still. A soppy ballad is a soppy ballad, and egregiously sentimental lyrics are egregiously sentimental lyrics. (Trusting the accuracy of the in-video translation.) No matter how portentous the video is.

Edward Okulicz: A long build up to a climax that doesn’t exist. Nice strings, though.

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