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BTS’ new album, MAP OF THE SOUL : PERSONA, nabbed over 3 million pre-orders, and the music video for lead single “Boy With Luv” is on track to set world records for its already-impressive view count. Given all this success, one might assume that the group’s seven members are strangers to sadness. The album’s standout track, “HOME,” projects an image of carefree luxury. If you were to latch onto the song’s English lyrics, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a track about flaunting wealth and reveling in one’s come-up. But despite this talk of “big cars” and “shin[ing] with flashin’ lights,” BTS find themselves unsatisfied. “The more I fill up the emptier I get/The more I’m with people the more I feel alone,” sings Jimin in the pre-chorus. Suddenly, the song’s glossy sheen feels like a facade.
As spokespersons for South Korea at large, BTS are undoubtedly faced with an insurmountable amount of pressure to represent their country with grace. Last year, BTS leader RM released a solo single that hinted at his conflicted feelings about such a position. That song, however, was outwardly melancholic—a huge contrast to the glimmering confidence that “HOME” seems to exude.
In a sense, “HOME” represents their current situation; while the majority of the world will find this to be a cozy R&B song, BTS harbor an unseen pain. They talk about wanting to spend time with a lover and how this person makes them feel rich—at home. By the end of the song, they’re in this lover’s presence, finding comfort at last. While BTS fans have looked to their socially conscious messages for hope and inspiration, the chart-topping K-pop group make clear that they need consolation from others too, that even though they are literally the biggest band in the world right now, they’re still human.
Kevin Parker is on a journey toward the end of psych rock. The waypoints that made Tame Impala’s early work sound like a Beatles starter kit were transformed into the bulbous psych-pop sound of 2015’s spectacular Currents. “Borderline”—the second single the band has released this year—is somewhere way off the psychedelic map, caught between early-era Weeknd and late-era Steely Dan. It is a product of Parker’s vibrant studio nerdery and the porous music era we find ourselves in. Standing amid the song’s lead electric piano, pan flutes, and a stew of lyrics about how Los Angeles is—spoiler alert—the land of fame-sex-drugs-pain-pleasure-and-doubt, you feel a bit lost in the oxygenless soft rock and, perhaps, you do not trust the guy who led you there.
It can be difficult to connect to Parker’s idea of pop music. “Borderline” is less looking at a lava lamp and more looking at an Instagram of a lava lamp. It doesn’t pull your ear to one corner with a neat synth element or hold your gaze as it becomes fascinated with a word or riff. Instead, it’s just a dense whorl of synths, auxiliary percussion, and ascending vocal lines. A highlight here is Parker’s voice, newly spry and soulful, able to convey real emotion that is nevertheless surrounded by a Jell-o-mold of sound. “Will I be known and loved/Is there one that I trust,” Parker sings on the chorus, bouncing deftly between high and low notes as if in conversation with himself. His uncertainty captures the feeling here too perfectly.
Since the early 1990s, the Japanese-born Kazu Makino has been the voice of Blonde Redhead, perfecting a weightless, ethereal style that’s often imitated and rarely equaled. This year, Makino will release her first solo album, Adult Baby, which finds her moving away from rock instrumentation in favor of synthesizers, samplers, and looping techniques. First single “Salty” hovers between a pop song and a fluid electronic composition, underlining gentle pulsations with sine-wave synths and a quietly insistent drumbeat.
Having relocated to escape stress and pollution in New York City, Makino wrote her new songs at home on the Italian island of Elba, inspired by the calm of a seaside environment. “Salty” speaks particularly to her passion for equestrianism; the lyrics officially include two horse emojis. “Eyes talk, my mind/Led by whatever you do…move,” she sings, an impressionistic capture of the nonverbal bond between horse and rider. Like a long summer sunset, “Salty” spends a third of its time winding down, but as the synthesizer devolves into pointillist blips and Makino begins to mix fragments of English with Japanese, her style remains unmistakable.
Last year, the Kaifeng, China-born, Vancouver-based producer Yu Su released the pensive, gorgeous five-track EP Preparations for Departure. Though the music was recorded in the wake of her mother’s passing, the underlying sense of sorrow never overtook its gentleness. The death of a parent is rarely an easy event to process, but Yu Su’s music felt quietly redemptive, as if we were there alongside her as she found small, beautiful moments in which to take solace.
Her latest EP remains buoyant—the Chinese title roughly translates as Roll With the Punches—and luminous standout “Little Birds, Moonbath” finds Yu Su collaborating with fellow Vancouverite Michelle Helene Mackenzie. Hand drums blend with the steady chug of a drum machine, their low-key patter mixing into a gentle cascade of keys and swirling electronics. Smaller details accrue: the hiss of a passing car and a woman’s voice that hovers just at the edge of comprehensibility, like hearing someone speak while your own mind is worlds away. But when piquant plucked strings suddenly leap out in the mix, “Little Birds, Moonbath” attains a striking clarity. It’s a modest sound, but it makes everything snap back into focus.
Like a legion of indie-pop acts before them, Brooklyn foursome Charly Bliss reject the notion that dark subject matter must be mirrored by a somber tone. On their latest single “Hard to Believe,” the band transform the struggle to break away from a toxic relationship into bouncy power-pop. While the first two songs off their upcoming sophomore record, Young Enough, explored bubbly synths, here Charly Bliss return to the sugar rush of their 2017 debut Guppy.
Against a relentless guitar riff, singer and guitarist Eva Hendricks confronts a romantic conflict that remains perversely enticing despite undeniable pain. “I’m kissing everything that moves/I’m kissing anything that takes me far away from you,” she professes, before revealing how tangled up she truly is: “But I would rather eat than starve/I would rather kiss you hard.” As Hendricks searches for an escape, the band chugs on, backing off just long enough to allow her to confront reality: “Tomorrow is coming/I know you don’t love me.” By the song’s conclusion, she hasn’t quite severed the loop of self-doubt, an incongruously upbeat reminder that it’s hard to believe in anyone, even yourself.