Album Review: Decomposing Nell’s “Newton’s Apple

With any new Nell album comes questions of growth and identity. Kim Jong Wan‘s music is quite iconic as a ‘style’–something that has given Nell an important edge over many bands. When most groups are unable to experiment with genre, the motifs engrained within Kim’s composing style allows for Nell to traverse the plethora of tones and modes of modern rock/alternative rock without always losing what makes Nell, Nell.

In the end, whether Newton’s Apple in both style and substance is ultimately deemed uncharacteristic or characteristic of Nell is a matter of the expectations you have involving the group. The songs that make up Newton’s Apple are streamlined and uniform, and while the context changes, all tracks have their foundations in a basic synth or piano/guitar loop (think along the lines of Coldplay, The Fray, etc.). A simple melody generally overlays the synth loop, which is then enhanced by instrumental flourishes that are characteristic of the group. In some sense, the predictable, consistent structure makes Nell mediocre; relying too much on attractive ambient hooks can undercut a song’s resonance and impact independent of the hook. However, any creative choice comes with both gains and drawbacks, including this one–in choosing to pursue the stronger hook, the album grabs listeners faster and keeps them there for the duration of the song and/or album.

 
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Instrumental openers are not unusual for a Nell album and “Decompose” works well to set up Newton’s Apple‘s stylistic presence. A basic synth loop carries the song, but the momentum resides in the tinny “orchestral” melody. It’s a bit overambitious, as three minutes of the same (rather beautiful) melody quickly gets boring. Thankfully the rounded percussion and ambience (mostly the vocalization and breathing effects) saves the piece from mundanity. If only“Decompose” attempted to develop more phrasing and spend less “effort” on the predictable layering, it would not only be pleasant, but memorable.

“Fantasy” picks up from where “Decompose” left off in momentum, mostly via its snappy chorus. I remember saying last year that Escaping Gravity has an air of Mylo Xyloto, and that’s kind of a false statement–“Fantasy” would fit wonderfully among the tracks of Mylo Xyloto, and is just easy to like as Coldplay’s efforts. “Fantasy”’s relaxed (but upbeat) presence is a welcoming way to start an album that leans on the languid side of Nell’s music. The balance between energy and elegance is hard to achieve in music because it’s easy to get caught up in satisfying one side or the other. “Fantasy,” like most of Newton’s Apple, treads the line quite well.

The flow from from “Fantasy” to “타인의 기억 (Disowned Memories/Memories of a Stranger)” is let than smooth, and iconic because of it. The two tracks couldn’t be more different from a melodic standpoint, yet the structural similarities emulsify the two tracks together in spite of the melodic differences. Both “Fantasy” and “타인의 기억 ” are guitar heavy with a strong drum line, which maintains a level of cohesion. While타인의 기억” may not stand out against the rest of the album, I often seek its straightforward nature. There’s comfort to be found in familiarity.

“침묵의 역사 (History of Silence)” has some of the best vocals from Kim Jong-wan, who tends to use the strain in his upper registers to characterize “Nell’s sound.” “침 묵의 역사” in contrast, pulls away from that painful register into the lower ones and focuses on the elasticity of the song’s phrases. That lethargic component in the composition and vocals play really well to the lyrics, especially in this section:

I’m just a little tired
Everyone goes through this
Can’t you just comfort me?
That’s what I hoped you would say.

The melody moves faster than the beats and by doing so subtly builds upon “meandering traveler” imagery and the “counter-image” of desperation. The song viscosity lets its melody sink to your toes and strengthens “침묵의 역사”‘s emotional impact even when the song may “physically” be bare. The song reverberates and swallows you whole by the end.

For the title piece of Newton’s Apple, I’m not surprised that Nell went with “ 지구가 태양을 네 번 (Four Times Around the Sun).” It speaks less to being the designated track of superior quality, and more about what makes Nell accessible. “지구가 태양을 네 번” has incredible flow, and a bright, sparkling melody that is quite attractive. Nell likes to play around with song structure (mostly on the minimal side), and “지구가 태양을 네 번” does the exact opposite. It stays close to the tried, true, and beloved of modern rock, which lends itself to being a strong title track.

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“Grey Zone” is pleasant as an instrumental, but really weak as a song. The whole track is “We are so much better. When we are not together,” sung with the same intonation each time. It is as boring in reality as it sounds on paper, and it’s tracks like “Grey Zone” that make me personify songs of its like (see Slip Away) into Icarus (wax wings melt when you get too close to the sun). Repetition is an excellent tool to subconsciously draw listeners, but like a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing can backfire. It certainly backfired in “Grey Zone” –to an extent.

The weird thing about this is that as much I want to throw “Grey Zone” into the Mariana Trench and never see it again, it has merit. Where I felt “Decomposed” lacked in structure, “Grey Zone” has, and while it’s hard to un-hear Jong-wan’s droning, it would behoove you to follow the instrumental like the lyrics and the lyrics like the instrumental. Why? Because that’s the what the lyrics and instrumentals actually act as. In other words, they’ve inverted; the vocals are part of the foundational “loop,” and the real song lies in the unspoken.

Placing “Newton’s Apple” right after “Grey Zone” felt like a strange choice, because the two have opposing textures. Grey Zone has a heavier instrumental while Newton’s Apple balances on processed vocals and a rather sparce drumline. In fact, “Newton’s Apple” stands out for being the most unexpected track on the album, ditching the refurb effect for outright “autotune.” I know a lot people swear off autotune as the devil of pop music, and there’s good reason for it–it gives vocals a note of artificiality, of something that is so carefully aligned to that it’s lost its soul. With that sort of connotation, these lyrics turned out to be quite the surprise:

and I’ll burn for you
each and every part of me belongs to you
when you’re in your darkest hour
I’ll put them all on fire and guide you
I will fight for you
no matter what it takes
I’ll fight for you
I will refuse to deny
this love that is bursting inside
I won’t hide from you
I know that I’ll be drawn right back to you
Like Newton’s apple hit the ground
my gravity will always lean towards you

Why would one use a metallic effect to convey their deepest loves? Well, I honestly don’t know, and it might have been a high price to pay for the inflections you hear–which, by the way, acts a heck of a lot like musical gravity.

Like Newton’s apple hit the ground
my gravity will always lean towards you.

환생의 밤 (Night of Reincarnation)” is basically my happy place (I’ve listened to this track more times than I’d like to admit) even if all things considered, “환생의 밤” is of no real substance. The track is a modern rock anthem that speaks to those moments you want to shed your worthless skin and be reborn as something better. I love how the song’s pulse is always at a higher pitch than the melody, because it has the effect of producing the feeling of continuous upward trend and while maintaining the structural inflections (verses, chorus, bridge, etc.) that give songs dimension. My only real disappointment with “환생의 밤” is that its middle eight was poorly written, apart from the clean snare holding everything together. A blocky drop and rise doesn’t hold the kind of satisfaction that a full, “motif carrying” bridge has, though a unappealing bridge isn’t necessarily a song killer.

Nell_NA_4 The final trio of songs compose the strongest portion of Newton’s Apple, starting with “소멸탈출 (The Great Escape).” The track’s greatest strength is that it’s rich and full without having resorting to whiny vocals. The opening chords burst right out of the gates, moving from a deep register to the octave equivalent within seconds to set up an equally invigorating chorus. While melodic, the chorus is pretty simple. When it comes down to it, the chorus is merely two lines repeated, but their purpose is to act as barriers between each section of the song. These verses stand out not only because there’s build-up between each one, but for the fact that verse 2 is not an exact mirror of verse 1. The most fascinating part of the song though is when the whole thing essentially “crashes” right after the second chorus. The crashing itself isn’t particularly unique–just look at “환생의 밤.” What is fascinating though is that the build-up back to the chorus is warped–it’s like someone corrupted the computer files one day and Nell just decided to keep it in the song. It’s totally bizarre, but the phrasing works fantastically in spite of the unconventionality. Unlike “환생의 밤,” “소멸탈출 ” takes the time to work its way back up from its drop, and lets even a 2-line chorus obtain climatic power. The key to powerful music is balance and transitions. No matter how wacky the drop or how distorted the synth, anything can be incorporated as long as the composition is cognizant of every element’s continuity.

“Dear Genovese” is probably my favorite song of the eleven–Jong-wan chorus whine and all–simply because it has gorgeous, relaxed melodies (both vocal and instrumental) that pair together really well. There’s something about half-step transitions and a minor key that instantly attracts, especially when those steps interact with each other on different musical planes. In addition to my love affair with chromatic scales, I like that “Dear Genovese”‘s effortless refrains are contrasted by a staccato drum-line and synth “beeps” (Is that even what you call them?). The choppy quality provides much needed contrast in the fluidity of the central melody, and can alert ear to pick up on the finer touches. Of all the sections of “Dear Genovese,” the pre-chorus is probably the most powerful, and I appreciate that the chorus doesn’t try to supersede it. Letting the instrumental modulations (those half-step relationships) stay at the forefront gives the song urgency from start to finish.

A final track that’s too somber sours the album’s aftertaste, and a track that is too upbeat can leave the listener half-full. Creating a balance between a forward moving song and one that is proactive is quite hard, and “Sunshine” makes that balance by having an energetic but subtle drum element create the undercurrent to an effortless melody. Like in “Dear Genovese,” contrast in the instrumental and the high pitched backtrack vocals prevents doldrum, so the main vocals comfortably hang around mid-register. What “Sunshine” does best, however, is let its closing moments stand for itself with an interesting guitar melody (along with some bells and whistles). The instrumental not only provides conclusion to the song, but acts as the album’s final statement as well.

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I can’t think of another force in the universe that teases the imagination the way gravity does. It is apparent, ubiquitous, predictable, weak, strong, intangible and a touch surreal. The myth of a glossy red apple crashing upon the young physicist’s head inspiring him to derive the gravity’s basic equations makes for a great origin story, because it takes a seemingly ordinary observation (things fall!) and questions its ordinary existence. Gravity’s fabric is what moves our worlds, our galaxies, our universe, warps our sense of time…and lets an apple smack us in the head.

Whether Nell intended it or not, their Gravity Trilogy managed to capture this spectrum of characteristics, though maybe not in the sense they wanted it to. If you think about it, Nell itself embodies gravity’s traits. Their music is equally “apparent, ubiquitous, predictable, weak, strong, intangible, and a touch surreal,” and it’s for that reason Gravity Trilogy worked. Each album of the trio didn’t attempt to tackle a new musical perspective of Nell’s overarching theme. Instead, each one distinguishes itself by color and presence, giving Nell the freedom to make the music they wanted–conveying feelings rather than concrete ideas. With that philosophy in music production, where the group lacks in sophistication and complexity, they make up with heart–the lasting impression.

While the last two albums of the Gravity Trilogy evoked the abstract and euphoric, Newton’s Apple’s soul resides in the comfort of home.

And it certainly did “gravity” justice.

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