Music usually tells simple stories through small lenses. At most, it uses two voices to convey its messages. There are hidden meanings and vignettes that bleed out beyond the edges of a song, of course, but for the most part, the listener can discover the main frames of reference and through lines. Music tends to favor emotion over narrative complexity.
Lushloss’ Asking/Bearing, on the other hand, manages to emphasize both complexity and emotion. Her debut LP is technically a double album, but it sometimes doesn’t feel like an album at all. In the first part, Asking, the Seattle-based artist (also known as Olive Jun) weaves together dialogue, keys, glitchy hip-hop beats, and heavily processed vocals to form something that sounds part radio diary, part audio art piece, and in what remains, deft electronic pop.
The album begins in that last mode. Starting with a soft piano ballad and a gentle vocal melody saturated with effects, the opener “St Marco” builds to a sparse but crisp beat. As the music starts to fade, though, two voices come in, sputtering and speaking over each other. The conversation settles, revealing the Skype call between Jun and her mom that is the foundation of the rest of the album's first half. After each song in Asking, the dialogue returns, often where it left off. Throughout, the two speak from a geographic distance—Seattle to Korea—and a generational distance, but also with the closeness of mother and child. There are moments of discomfort, like that first one, in which Jun’s mom says her trans daughter’s name from before she transitioned; moments of trying to bridge the divide, like when Jun asks her mom, “When did your dad die?”; and moments of mundane logistics, as when her mother starts to plan the next trip.
It’s a complicated story—as much as any cross-section of life could be called a story—that brings up family history, cultural divisions, illness, and coming out as trans to older family members. In the end, though, it circles around the two checking in on each other. After Jun spends much of the conversation asking her mother questions and supporting her through her own mother’s illness (“I just hope you’re okay,” she says at one point), the final piece of dialogue ends with the mother saying, “You have to be okay until we get together.” It’s a jarringly touching moment, heartbreaking because it’s so intimate and raw.
Between the dialogue, Jun’s music complicates the narrative. Sometimes songs intersect with conversation—“St Marco” and “Sisters” each deal with family relationships, and in “Gutter,” the singer asks, “Have you called your mother today?” Most of it wanders elsewhere, though, suggesting a life lived in parallel to the one we can glimpse in the phone call. “Clark, WA,” a moody, guitar-driven track, seems to tell the story of an imbalanced past relationship; in “Sheet,” a delicate but hopeful-sounding song, Lushloss sings, “I’m so tired of feeling tired today”; and in “Yana (Interlude),” the bridge between Asking and Bearing, Lushloss plays a slightly sped-up recording of a voicemail for a person far away, this time with seemingly romantic overtones.
None of that distracts from the call, which comes to form the central narrative. And neither does the album’s second part. Much more straightforward electronic pop, the five songs on Bearing provide welcome companionship for the reflection required after Asking (and they probably deserve more critical space than sharing a bill with Asking affords them). Asking/Bearing is rife with voices—not just the mother-daughter duet, but the artist’s voice processed to different pitches and tones, tapes of friends speaking, field recordings, electronic and acoustic instruments—that tell separate and intersecting stories. At the end, though, as the beat and bare vocals on “Gymnasium” glitches and fades, Lushloss leaves you with an intimate sense of her as an artist and the intimacy that seeing someone so closely can create.