Albums of such shear artistry, originality and thematic immediacy are few and far between. This is the album of perspective and hope we need in this time of political and social unrest.
Not surprisingly, given the current social and political climate, immigration and the immigrant experience are a hot topic. From television (Fresh Off the Boat, et. al.) to film (Brooklyn, et. al.) to the racially-charged tension and xenophobia that this election cycle has shown to be thriving within a country that prides itself on freedoms both personal and religious. There’s no hard and fast answer to the myriad problems facing both those looking for a better life in the United States and those who have been here yet still face prejudice and racial profiling.
But putting a name and a face to the vague generalization of the “immigrant experience” helps add depth and relatability; we all have our stories, origin and otherwise, and if we look close enough we will see there’s not much separation between those just arriving and those who have been in the country for several generations. We are, without question, a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of cultural experiences, beliefs and practices. Without each we would not be the nation we have become.
Andrew Choi is the son of Korean immigrants. His familial heritage and experiences as a first-generation child of immigrant parents form the lyrical basis for his second album under the St. Lenox moniker, Ten Hymns from My American Gothic. Dividing the album roughly in half thematically, Choi works backwards, beginning with his own American dream and his efforts to achieve it. From his time spent in rural Iowa to his moving to New York to study at Julliard, his own personal rise is documented through opening track “Fuel America". Here he sets off from Iowa with the hope of realizing the “American super dream", only to find it’s not nearly as magical an experience as it has long been made out to be. By song’s end, he’s back in Iowa, “the heart of America". The regret is palpable in his slippery, soulful, utterly singular voice as he sings, “Yeah I didn’t make it this year mom, and I’m sorry.”
This theme of generations runs through the whole of the album -- the project originally conceived in honor of his father’s 70th birthday -- reaching its apex on the album’s second half where the focus is placed on Choi’s relationship with his parents, each of whom had a vastly different experience growing up. Much in the same way Aziz Ansari approached the subject of first generation immigrant children in Master of None, Choi here can’t help but feel guilty with his own perceived setbacks and personal shortcomings when compared with the hardships suffered by his parents.
On “People From Other Cultures", he directly addresses the issue with a back-and-forth comparison that, like “Parents", the thematically similar episode of Master of None, moves back and forth between the life Choi’s mother knew and left behind in Korea and that which Choi himself is now trying to navigate. “She doesn’t understand / Why I’m always fearful of the dangers in the world / I said it’s different cultures / She’s from a different world / I said it’s a different generation.” Using a slow-burn groove, Choi builds to an explosive conclusion, asserting the differences between himself and his parents are to be found in the generation gap. It’s an emotionally charged explanation rooted in guilt as he realizes he’s no room to complain when cast alongside the life his parents lead in order to afford him a greater chance of personal freedom and success.
What’s most striking about Ten Hymns From My American Gothic is not so much the autobiographical honesty with which Choi sings -- think of this as a sort of Korea-American version of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji -- but rather the manner in which he sings. A bold, emotionally wrought instrument, his is a voice struck through with a frenetic desperation, the words tumbling out in a sort of stream-of-conscious. This rapid-fire lyrical recitation finds Choi breathtakingly racing through each line, intent on fitting an overwhelming number of syllables within the strict parameters of the music itself.
With “Nixon", a track examining the post-presidency years of the titular political figure, Choi barks out the lyrics, the melody rising in falling over a classical chord progression in a manner akin to Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yA-rDs. Musically and aesthetically, Garbus is a fair point of reference in that they both defy immediate stylistic classification, instead favoring a sort of musical line of best fit in terms of their unique compositional approach. Yet unlike tUnE-yArDs, St. Lenox feels less the result of artistic creativity and more creativity artistry borne of necessity. A classically-trained, Julliard-educated violinist, Choi initially abandoned a life in music to pursue a legal career.
As a practicing lawyer in New York City, “Thurgood Marshall” serves as his own personal mission statement, declaiming his admiration for Marshall and love of the American legal system despite the confusing nature of our times. Musically, he follows a sing-song vocal cadence that flirts with the song's standard four-on-the-floor beat. There's such a ferocious intensity in his delivery that each line, each word, feels a matter of life and death. This same basic feel is used in the paranoid character sketches of “Conspiracy Theories", featuring a melody that rises and falls with astonishing quickness. It’s one of many instances of musical virtuosity masked by the rough-hewn timbre of Choi’s impressive vocal range.
Despite these brief tangents, the heart of the album lies in both the Korean and Korean-American experience. “Korea” deals with the perception versus reality of the country, its various knick-knacks and curios contrasting sharply with the reality of the nation and its people. “An origin story is a very nice thing/when you never knew where you come from,” he sings. “’Cause a picture viewed from a point afar / Is a very bad way to remember.” Discussing his relationship with his father, “What I Think About When You Say South Korea” finds stories of the past coming through in fits and starts, fragments that gradually come together to form a picture of what life was like, yet with significant details and corresponding emotions largely absent from the narrative.
A singer-songwriter in the classical sense, Choi employs a wholly unique vocal and musical approach, each standing in contrast to the other to create a gloriously incongruous fusion. Throughout, the emotion catches in his voice, a surprisingly malleable instrument that slips and slides across pitch, creating uniquely fluid vocal lines and melodies. There are only so many places pop music can go, being restricted to 12 tones, each paired in various ways, nearly all of which have been used before. It takes a distinctly singular voice to create something that stands apart from the ever increasing white noise overwhelming the internet in the wake of the great democratization of recording. St. Lenox represents that singular voice, at once very much of its time and utterly timeless in its thematic universality. Ten Hymns from My American Gothic is nothing short of a 21st century pop masterpiece.