Written by Daniel Belgrad (Vern Matz)
The music of Melodrama has the feeling of rushing past you, moving from the front of your ear to the back until it releases in a fog. The blurriness of the record is a peaceful high, but the faded catharsis also belies a certain pain. As Melodrama becomes progressively pensive, the brightness of CASTLEBEAT gives way to a muted melancholy. Bedroom pop has a way of approaching sadness and isolation in a chipper tone, and, without reducing Melodrama to a genre byproduct, there is some similarity in this regard.
I initially approached Melodrama as a shiny record, one that echoes a Tokyo skyline while retaining (somewhat incredibly) a deep sense of being organic. For a record that sounds very “gridded”, there is little mechanism. In fact, Melodrama evokes something decidedly more physical: sunshine and soil, and this is an achievement particularly notable given the electronic tools at Josh Hwang’s disposal.
There are two notable currents running through Melodrama that do well to capture its overall thrust. The first is the use of vocals, which are frequently doubled (sometimes more than doubled), coated in processing, and pushed away from the center of the stereo. This achieves a few things: it adds to an effortless floating feeling, creates an aloof sensibility, and, as aloofness does, it underscores distance between the listener and Hwang. If this is the rule, there are exceptions. 80s High School utilizes a clearer and more centered vocal, and this clarity is both striking and effective, nestled between its counterparts. Worries has a similar effect, which brings us to our second current: the fight between blurriness and clarity. Just as the album is reluctant to foreground its vocals, Melodrama displays apprehension in foregrounding emotional turmoil, ironic given its title. The result is a beautiful blurriness, and rare moments of clarity, which gain added signification against a sea of warbled harmonies.
In the album’s center is Shoulder, which employs guitars and a general surge of energy. This is the emotional high of CASTLEBEAT’s album (in valence, not magnitude) – a genuinely infectious surf rock song. From there, we fade into slower, more pensive pieces. Hwang has grabbed us with his gleeful brand of bedroom pop, before stripping away the sonic curtain and foregrounding emotional heft (and not coincidently his vocals). The transition is well earned, and the emotional arc is well crafted, adding to the density of the album rather than detracting from its cohesion. It’s rare that something which sparkles so brightly attempts to hit so hard.
The entire record has a feeling of deserved escapism, a ladder into a world where colors leap out and Hwang’s sonic exploration takes hold. But don’t let it fool you; Melodrama may coat it’s insular ballads with lushness and fog, but there is a bubbling undercurrent of yearning isolation. All together, Melodrama is cool, fun, effortless, melancholic – and all of this is veiled behind a thick layer of Castlebeat, quite the achievement.
Album Highlights: Beam, Shoulder, Worries