I recently discovered the music album Now by Kim Jung Mi and felt the need to spread the word about her. Writing about music in the traditional style like, “The first song sounds like a cross between early 70s Bowie and Public Enemy”, doesn’t seem to do it justice. It’s a good and legitimate way of doing things, but it just fails to capture the way that sometimes albums and musicians can envelop you and really blow your mind.
I saw Neutral Milk Hotel a while ago and Jeff Mangum – the lead singer – spoke onstage about how Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime felt like it was actually part of his DNA. That album’s in English, the language of Jeff Mangum, while ‘Now’ by Kim Jung Mi is sung entirely in Korean. There are stories of how people who speak no English can watch Shakespeare plays and understand everything just because of the intonations the actors use and the actions onstage. You don’t need to understand all of the lyrics on this album to grasp the brilliance of it.
Kim Jung Mi rose to prominence in the early 70s, during the repressive and culturally empty period of Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship. She and her collaborators were forced to work under the constant supervision of government censors who deemed her music noneducational and also had Shin Joong Hyun, who arranged and played guitar on all of her albums, arrested in 1975 after he refused to write a song in praise of the dictator. Being released in 1973, as it was, Now was right in the middle of this difficult time in Korean musical history.
Kim Jung Mi was the inheritor of the popular musical direction of Kim Choo Ja, who had been the first truly exciting musical prospect in Korea. She worked with Shin Joong Hyun and became the first singer to actually move and perform to her music on stage. Her career was curtailed by bad management and government interference in the early 70s and so Kim Jung Mi was forced to take on the mantle of the next hope for popular Korean music. Her focus on the landscape and beauty of Korea echoed the way that, when told to write a song for Park Chung Hee, Shin Joong Hyun wrote 아름다운강산 (Beautiful Mountains and Rivers), celebrating the eternal natural world of Korea instead of the modern political one. Now feels connected to that world too. It also features a version of that song.
It’s almost impossible not to feel a connection to the way Kim Jung Mi’s plaintive voice rises to catch the swelling backing around the three minute mark of the first song – ‘The Sun’. The arrangement perfectly complements the vocals and gives some indication of why Shin Joong Hyun is such a legendary figure in Korean musical history. His guitar work here is exceptional too. His playing doesn’t overshadow the music for a moment – which for such an accomplished guitarist is impressive – he arranged and helped produce the album, as well as working with Kim Jung Mi on a number of other occasions. They never produced a bad album together but this album may be their masterwork. The particular alchemical chemistry they created was difficult to replicate.
Thankfully we have one document, set in sound, to count as proof of the fantastic ambitions of Korean music at one point in the recent past. If you allow it, this album can suit every mood: every season and every day. In Viking myth, Valhalla was poised perpetually at the point when spring turns into summer, and the front cover of this album seems to show a similar scene. In it, Kim Jung Mi is standing in an open space with the blue and cloudy sky high above her, with bushes showing frail and colorful leaves on their branches. She is looking away from the camera as if the viewer is intruding on a moment she’s spending alone. It is an extraordinarily potent image, evocative of the movement which the picture seems to suggest. With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the clouds move and with the right kind of ears you can hear Kim Jung Mi sing sad songs to the world around her.
The name of the album, Now, prominently displayed on the cover, seems an odd choice from this point in the future. The album does not seem to have dated much because it seemed to already be hearkening back to another time even as it was being created. Korean psychedelic rock did not have a long history to look back onto and so Kim Jung Mi was forced to make up the rules of it as she went along. The album rarely seems to want to capture the present moment. It sounds as timeless now as it must have done when it first appeared in the world, and it is all the better for that fact. It is a wondrous document in part because it sounds so effortless and charmingly strange. It is also a wondrous document because it seems almost miraculous that it all worked out so well. It is, to my mind, an astonishingly accomplished and incomparable album. In fact, to compare Now to anything else is to do it a disservice. All you can do with this album is listen to it and maybe let it do strange things to your DNA.