Singaporean singer songwriter Charlie Lim’s latest record ‘CHECK-HOOK’ is one of a select few this year which has left me speechblown and mindless. Mindspeech and blown- Well, you get the idea. A tightly packaged 7-track album showcasing an immaculate fusion of experimental electronica, R&B, Soul, Jazz and Folk Rock, Lim delivers an immersive musical experience that does not leave one wanting more nor less. Nay, the compact album is one that delivers just right; drawing listeners into a painstakingly handcrafted soundscape where music and lyrics divide and conquer to construct an equilibrium that has often eluded even the best of us.
‘CHECK-HOOK’ , a concept based on Lim’s interest in the art of boxing is a unique choice for the album title. It alludes a defensive boxing move incorporating the pretence of aggression, followed by intricate footwork to allow the opponent to miss their mark and swing by harmlessly. (Thanks Wikipedia) Yet while other artists have used such combatant concepts in more straightforward ways; creating dense, stimulating soundscapes advocating tropes of senseless violence, aggression and brute force, Lim takes the path less trodden and turns a mindless trope into a mindful sentiment.
Instead, the 29 year-old uses this album to convey a meaningful discussion about the challenges and negative emotions that come with daily life through the metaphor of a boxing technique, reinforcing ‘self-defence’ as a crucial yet oft-forgotten component of combat.
The album, characterised by a mix of experimental electronic beats, melancholy piano arrangements and a heavy emphasis on vocal samples/backings paints an eclectic landscape. It is at times playful and at others reflective, but always dotted with Lim’s signature wry lyricism.
‘Welcome Home’ is one of my favourites on this record. It tastefully reinforces the album’s theme with genius lines such as ‘spent too long picking all my battles/now the fight’s gone out of me’ and mimics this in its constantly changing arrangement. Unpredictable like the contents of a fight, the song has a certain grit and adrenaline-like energy coursing through its veins which I find endlessly intriguing and energising.
‘Circles’ is another genius track which; like its name reprises an unconventional song format. Jazzy chords, dissonant lo-fi beats and a hint of math rock-ish guitar licks keep things fresh here. The song’s hook is a concentric melody that rises and falls with the arc of a circle as Lim croons ‘I cannot explain/why things so easily break/And the longer I’m here/the longer forever has no meaning’. Interesting choice of words, despite circles essentially being one unbroken line. Yet the following lines denote that maybe actual circles are not the only thing Lim is talking about here. His lyrics denote a sense of hopelessness often found in the mundane routine of daily life, positing ideas about circular thinking and self-awareness.
In ’Zero-Sum’, Charlie goes deep with a reference to game and economic theory concept. The theory refers to a situation where each participants’ gain or loss of utility are equally balanced. Lim cleverly and soulfully makes reference to this through lyrical themes of need, exchange and loss, crooning in passive tones ‘Cus I can’t do this anymore/And I don’t need you anymore’. The song begins with undercurrent-like synthesisers, ebbing and flowing like the calm before a storm, reminding me of fancy footwork in a boxing match. Charlie’s vocals lean back seamlessly into the undercurrents, folding itself in without losing clarity. Here, through a mesmerising future-soul soundscape, Lim sends the message that give and take with certain opponents as a losing game, a situation he doesn’t need, neither can he afford.
The second half of the album is decidedly more laid-back, but evolves into something more self reflective and hauntingly beautiful, a vibe Charlie is very familiar with. I love ‘Least Of You’, a simple but tastefully positioned R&B track which makes the most of Charlie’s soothing, intimate vocals. Again, Lim’s lyrics are filled with striking imagery and themes of heady hopelessness but this time with a throbbing backbeat that belies a desire to keep pushing forth in the face of change.
‘Better Dead Than A Damsel’ and ‘Premonition’ are two outstanding tracks that I’ll leave listeners to mostly discover on their own, but I will say that in ‘Better Dead Than A Damsel’, rappers Fariz Jabba and Yung Raja did a great job with creating a seamless flow that added another layer of texture to the song’s soundscape, but their delivery was a little too lo-fi and not dynamic enough for my tastes. As for Weish on ‘Premonition’, things took a dark, gothic turn when she entered the track, making a striking and honestly quite scary entrance with low, gravelly vocals and a hint of cloying sweetness. A striking collaboration I will not soon forget.
Religious references are scattered throughout the album in a tasteful, organic manner, reflecting the huge influence of Lim’s faith on his works; but on the albums last track ‘Unconditional’ the message here is unmistakable. Constructing a lighter, more airy soundscape than found on the other tracks, if ‘Premonition’ was Charlie’s take on death, then ‘Unconditional’ must be his take on what comes next. Referencing from traditional hymns, the lyrics on this track are steadfast in representing Lim’s faith, while the increasingly complex cacophony of sounds and textures belie a powerful sense of unwavering faith even until the end.
In short, CHECK-HOOK is a musical unpacking of Lim’s attitudes and ideas on life, cleverly relayed through a boxing metaphor. To Charlie, it seems that life does not have to be an uphill battle, or a struggle. It is a dance of give or take; an exchange of words, actions, emotions. Sure, it’ll always be a fight to the finish, but the question is who your opponent is, and what strategy you’ll use to close out the match. Clever, intimate, yet a move outside his comfort zone, this sparkling gem of an album was very certainly worth the wait.