“Always be with you you you you you you,” sings Jonghyun over a shower of cascading synthesizer light beams. Surging to life with measured eagerness, “Shinin” finds the K-pop singer-songwriter in an uncommonly cheery mood, and it glows. Twisty, whooshy, dizzy electronic backing complements the elation of his vocals, and when the chorus suddenly blossoms and spills over the beat, , the reflective polish is blinding. Such ebullience!
Jonghyun’s suicide in December hangs bleakly and inevitably over his second and final album, the posthumous Poet Artist, out since January. It’s not a deliberately plotted goodbye like David Bowie’s Blackstar or Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, though; it’s just the next album he’d recorded. Although it’s sharper, sweeter, and more confident than his debut, She Is (2016), and the few other EPs and compilations that flesh out the rest of his discography, I hesitate to make grand claims for it or call it a major breakthrough — his tragedy illuminated the longing and despair that were present in his music from the start. Nonetheless, the album’s emotional urgency rivets.
Since first emerging as one of five boy idols in Shinee, among K-pop’s most sublimely streamlined and hooky groups, Jonghyun distinguished himself by composing music and lyrics for Shinee as well as his own solo work, and eventually for labelmates and other artists. He crafted a reputation as an auteur — a performer so talented he was itching to write as well — and he cultivated the concomitantly sensitive/introspective persona implied by the new album’s title; in an industry where pop stars usually sing, dance, and wear whatever masterminds at the label hand them, elementary notions of creativity are potentially a meaningful alternative. Over time he was writing more and more, with his solo music getting tighter and tangier with each release. Poet Artist sounds like a culmination.
Poet Artist’s luscious electronic surface is immaculate — 11 crisp, billowing exercises in synthesized, R&B-tinged popcraft rising from the hissing ether, delivering a few verses and choruses intertwined intimately around each other, and fading into the next one. Chilly glistening keyboards and echoey, rumbling drum machines integrate smoothly into an album that aims for mild sensuality while concealing deeper pangs underneath.
As with much recent Korean R&B, most notably IU’s Palette, the album declines the immediately hooky mode for a delicate, exquisite touch, almost feathery in its lightness, but Poet Artist is more conventionally upbeat than the impossibly gossamer Palette, and hooks appear as well. Suitably, they’re seamlessly incorporated into the shimmer. Jonghyun furthers an honorable tradition of quietly brooding, heartsick introverts sucked into a sea of surging electronic glimmer, falling madly in love with the dancebeat pounding his ears. The throb of the keyboard mirrors his own ache.
Hushed electric piano noodling spirals all over the place on “Hashtag,” a sleek downtempo track whose relaxed hop shares a contained energy, compressed through superficial quietude, with Jonghyun’s breathy murmur. “I’m So Curious” sways intricately over softly fuzzy scraped synthesizer chords and background vocals cooing and ooing, notes of tenderness in a warm, sublime, cozy yet uncertain erotic space; the song’s tentative intimacy seems to make the singer blush blush. Meanwhile, “Sightseeing” weaves a sparkly mock-disco groove from high staccato strings and rubbery honking horns, groaning and spinning out of control, deployed for maximum punch. Delicacy comes in many moods.
Ebullience doesn’t equal happiness, and Poet Artist also includes fever dreams that boil over. “Only One You Need” and “Take the Dive” exemplify how a series of slight gestures can suggest a massive, bottomless romantic anxiety down to the last shudder.
“You’re always right/I’m wrong,” he sighs in “Only One You Need” as droplets of percussion fall and ripple solemnly through the air, before suddenly swelling into the tormented one-line chorus — “I wanna be the only one you need” — looped until “need-eed-eed” echoes away, mocking him, making him sound ridiculous. A shifty synth hook, vaguely reminiscent of tropical house in its soft-edged flash, underlines his vocal and speeds up the track. Like a heartbeat, the bleak hook drowns out everything else, announcing to the song and the singer that the whole endeavor is doomed. There’s no resolution after the final chorus; the song concludes in a cold sweat.
“Take the Dive” matches “Only One You Need” in its horrible yearning. A neat little guitar figure leads into a cavern of sumptuous, underwater synthesizer reverb, as Jonghyun croons in his highest, sweetest falsetto. Then the chorus explodes: crash, slam, the electronic chords drop. As he wails “Take the diiiiiiiiiive,” synthesizers and guitars construct a chasm, an endless fall, anticipating the splash at the bottom that never comes; if it did the impact would be fatal: romantic commitment as imagined deathzone. Each time the chorus comes around he sounds more anguished, and as with “Only One You Need,” the song’s arc never resolves, instead stopping abruptly after the last chorus.
Synthpop exists for performers to indulge dramas like this: formalized pop convention is the most natural place to locate depictions of anxiety. The desperation of these songs suggests an emotional extremity so huge it swallows up the emotions themselves. Imagine feeling this way for more than the length of a song; you couldn’t.
As with any deceased musician, the temptation exists to speculate over how much Jonghyun’s real-life suffering informed the music, and whether the music reveals an awareness of his impending death. Given the tendency of K-pop fans toward biography and literalism, bordering on willful suspension of disbelief, I suspect the album is due for heavy rounds of exegesis: a secret message for fans here, a coded gesture there. Or that he intended “Before Our Spring,” the plaintively beautiful piano ballad that closes the album, as an explicit goodbye. Don’t do it. Reframing the album to center on death does a disservice to the life that animates this music, the energy, the craft, the delight, and the ambivalence. Poet Artist stands as a marvelous pop-formalist jewel, and evidence that Jonghyun had matured into a supreme pop polymath.