An artist's music, it's said, should stand on its own. And while I sometimes believe that, I also believe that sometimes the back-story of the artist informs a listener's experience in such a way that it would be silly to not at all acknowledge it. Would the new St. Lenox album, Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love, out Friday on Anyway Records, succeed on its own, a listener unaware that Andrew Choi was a gay, Korean-American man from the heartland of this country and now a lawyer in NYC? Sure, yes. The poetry here would make that happen.
Now, that said, knowing Choi's background adds a depth to things here, a richness that informs the intellect, even as the tunes touch the heart. From the heartfelt "First Date", and onward to "More Than Romantic Love", it's clear that St. Lenox has this uncanny skill at making his specifics things that we can feel, his voice an instrument that can convey so many universal truths by casually rattling off this one guy's own personal story. One marvels at how easily Choi turns "Don't Ever Change Me New York City" into both his own personal anthem and a near-rallying cry for those struggling in 2018 to not sell out. A cry of the heart that's remarkably observed and related, the track is utterly unlike anything else you're going to here this year, Choi's voice a reassuring reminder that real art can be crafted in these dark days of Trump.
If "The Hungry Years" reveals some personal details of Choi's family, the realities of being the child of immigrants in Middle America, it also punches with a broad and bracing force, flashes of easy electro-pop and "Dancing In The Dark"-style optimism-in-the-face-of-defeat blending nicely. Choi, like The Boss before him, manages to take very American forms and bend them to his vision, his POV informing the material with a kind of soul every bit as valid as that pumped out for decades from Motown. When Choi turns his gaze further out, like on the stately "Vincent Van Gogh", he manages to frame the struggles in the song in stark relief against those of the Dutch painter. While that sounds presumptuous and silly on paper, it works spectacularly here, Choi's voice quivering on the chorus. A long-time fan of St. Lenox should rightly see this track, and the straightforward "You Have Got To Feel It", as proof that there are still new avenues for Choi to travel as a performer. "You have got to feel it, baby, you have got to feel it..." indeed!
So much of what's here on Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love is so invigorating that a listener is really pressed to not rave about this. And if part of that urge to tell your friends about St. Lenox is due to how different his work is from that of 99% of what's out there in indie-pop, that's okay. Representation matters, as they say, and Andrew Choi is owning that (and on multiple levels). The American Dream refined, dissected, and re-defined effortlessly, Choi's Art is never oppressive, even as it imparts some deep truths with wit and ease. There's a vibrancy here -- in the style, the words, the performance -- that is downright exciting. Informed by his own unique experiences, Choi's made one of his most universally-appealing St. Lenox records so far. Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love is a wonderful, wonderful album.
Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love is out on Friday via Anyway Records.
[Photo: Uncredited photo from the St. Lenox Facebook page]