With a Hammer slips into unknowable territory. Yaeji’s past work has done that too – the Korean-American artist’s 2020 mixtape What We Drew, her first for the storied UK label XL, veered away from the club-oriented dance music of previous releases and into something more ambient, introspective, and diffuse. Even as her musical instincts once again guide her in different directions, her debut album, like What We Drew, chronicles the push-and-pull between anxiety and confidence, community and solitude, weaving catharsis out of the most uncertain corners of that internalized space. Take the lead single ‘For Granted’, whose emotional core – fluctuating as it does between sincere gratitude and unease around the unexpected goodness of her life – feels like such a continuation of the reflections on What We Drew that it feels wrong to call the With a Hammer a departure. It’s only a different, more solidified kind of arrival, one that still stirs up more questions than it answers.
What is the emotion that Yaeji wields on the record? “It’s abstractly about how anger is shapeshifting and how it passed through me,” she said in a recent interview. If anger is the closest approximation, how long has it been there, and what new forms can it take? Does channeling it imply destruction as literal as the album’s title, or is it more about the silence it leaves behind, somehow freer than the silence of repression? This probing is a slippery practice, but since Yaeji understands the task at hand, the songs on With a Hammer bristle, as she promised, with intention. And that consciousness transforms into a sense of purpose, which she lays out on ‘Done (Let’s Get It)’: “Isn’t it our mission this life to break the cycles/ Make it make you/ Mend the cycles.” Introducing the album’s themes, ‘Submerge FM’ opens with fluttering orchestration that’s both playful and immersive, making the futures we can’t see, the stuff of dreams, feel livable.
While With a Hammer coheres together, the logic it follows is non-linear, and any defiance it offers is more cheeky than resolute. It’s a drifting record, and it only drifts into bubbly escapism once, on ‘Away x5’, which serves as a lovely late-album treat rather than a centerpiece. ‘Ready or Not’ is subtler than you’d imagine any electronic track built around the line “Ready or not, here I come,” but it embodies the disorientating shift from stifling isolation to reentering the world with both urgency and vulnerability. “Ever since I was young/ My mood swings depended on weather/ Here/ I learned mother nature/ I’m sorry/ I’m powerless,” she sings on highlight ‘Passed Me By’, switching between Korean and English as she traces back the confusion of identifying with forces beyond her control – and most people’s perception. The track is dreamy and vaporous at first, but as she finds ways to ground the sensation (“I like flipping the pages and feeling the physical weight of how much time has passed me by”), it becomes kinetic and booming, her wispy vocals barely catching up.
Even when there’s clarity on the other end, the most visible, present version of Yaeji doesn’t completely overshadow her past selves, or those deeper down. But reshaping them can be illuminating. In the blissfully sparse environment of ‘I’ll Remember for Me, I’ll Remember for You’, where remembering is framed as an act of personal freedom, a sort of creeping thought arises, encased in parentheses: “(I wrote it down for you.)” Then it’s liberated, and the song is split generously in two, self no longer masking the other. You can feel the weight of frustration permeating the title track – “There were days I gave up/ And put a mask on my face, brain, and heart” – but the more she repeats it, the more she’s told to take a break from dreaming, the lighter, weirder, and gentler her dance grows. It sounds like reanimating a broken cycle.
As the record progresses, it starts to resemble a study in contrasts. The sonic distance between the hard-hitting ‘Michin’ and the searching melancholy of the Loraine James-assisted ‘1 Thing 2 Smash’ makes breezing through the couple of tracks between them feel like time travel. The euphoric ‘Happy’, featuring Nourished by Time, is an invitation to surrender to both ourselves and those around us, relaxing into the joy of communal and self-directed love. It could easily be the closing track, but easy is not the path Yaeji takes. She leaves us with ‘Be Alone in This’, a song about, well, not wanting to be alone in this. But just as it spirals inward, it seems to change course. “That’s how you lose track of,” she keeps singing, manipulating her vocals to mirror the feeling. Maybe it’s ambivalent – is it loneliness distorting time or finding the courage to step into yourself? Creativity spilling out, falling in love? With each repetition, the boundaries grow porous, as if to stop us questioning. Maybe, then, it can happen to you.