It’s no surprise to me that in 2016, the best album about America is by a first-generation son of Korean immigrants. Andrew Choi’s music toes the line between bitterness and hope. The exhausting journey to find your path and follow it is hard, but there is a chance it’s all gonna be worth it in the end.
St. Lenox, Choi’s title for his musical project, is as close to a new Paul Simon as we’re gonna get, and frankly he’s better than we deserve. His observations about life are smart and biting, and the delivery can sound sweet while being slyly derisive. After putting out the brilliant 10 Songs About Hope And Memory, Choi could’ve sat back and enjoyed the praises he was getting from people around the globe. Instead he went out and wrote a record that goes even deeper into his own mind. The result is overflowing with great lines about the immigrant experience his parents faced as well as his own hardships trying to make it as a young Korean man.
Choi wastes no time pointing out that the “American Dream” is an illusion, for an immigrant and also most Americans who aren’t born with a silver spoon. There’s some fun had at the expense of Nixon on the track of the same name. He talks a bit about how great it is when things get done right in America on the song “Thurgood Marshall.” But for me, the record really strikes it’s finest chords in the last few numbers, focusing on his parents and their life in South Korea before they came to the States.
On “Korea,” Choi sings about the beauty and hostility of his homeland: “And people will greet with a smile and nod to anyone close to closer*, but it’s guns are ready to storm and blaze at anyone north of the border. And people say that the Kingdom Come will send you higher and higher, but the Mongol blood and the hardened veins is an animal deep inside her.” (*good chance I’m hearing this one part of the line wrong).
The vocals on “Korea” are by far the strongest on the record, with Choi’s range and control each in impressive form. So much of the album’s power comes from how the words are delivered, and it’s just perfection time after time.
My favorite song comes almost all the way at the end, called “What I Think About When You Say South Korea.” It’s all about the social aspect of our history-learning things from your parents or grandparents just by sitting with them and talking. Choi recounts his dad’s stories about his relationship with his mother, people left behind in their native country, time spent in the military. It’s also about losing that cultural part of yourself that seems to vanish as you assimilate into a new land. He ends with the line “That’s what I think about when you say South Korea, lately. That’s why I feel I have to go back again someday.”