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Yeule: Softscars Album Review

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Softscars by Yeule Album Review

When Yeule uncorks their roar, it sounds like a full-body exorcism, like they’ve been waiting to let it out. Wrapped up in grungy angst, hurtling alongside rambunctious cymbal crashes, and shadowed by exasperation with the empty promises of online life, these screams blare like klaxons on soft scars opener “x w x,” signalling ruptures to come. This deck-clearing detonation of a song is prefaced by cascading piano lines tangled up in computerized static, a neat aural distillation of the art-school pop cyborg’s animating inquiry: Now that we’re all hopelessly tethered to technology in search of companionship, comfort, and control, what does it mean to be human? On softscars, their answer can be as annihilating as those shrieks, as playful as an #emovoice TikTok video, or as startling as a notification from a dead friend’s phone.

yeule started toying around with music production as a young teenager in the early 2010s after they saw a live video of Grimes on the internet and thought, “This fucking bitch does it all by herself… so I’m gonna try.” Over the last few years, the non-binary digital native broke out with a couple of future-shocked electronic pop albums in the mould of Grimes, Charli XCX, and Björk, collecting a cult of Discord and Twitch fans. They mostly sang in a hushed deadpan, wary of letting the real world infringe on their virtual existence. “I like to think I’m doing just fine/I like to search my symptoms online,” goes one memorable lyric from 2022’s Glitch Princess.

But on softscars, yeule dives headlong into this thing called humanity, grappling with all the chaos that comes with it. The album’s title defiantly references old self-harm scars that linger on Yeule’s body, tangible reminders of past traumas and what it took to overcome them. And a cloak of reverb is finally lifted from their voice, revealing a startlingly expressive range: They can sound winningly whiny or wistful or utterly broken in vocals that are often echoed by pitch-bent doppelgangers, like a chorus of Gollums calling in from a choppy line. They’re also looking to a much different, more retro realm for musical inspiration: alternative rock. The album, largely created by Yeule alongside the exciting young producer Kin Leonn, delivers a vintage K-Rock playlist of corroded and gauzy styles, with souped-up dream-pop, emo, electro-folk, pop-punk, and grunge rushing by like fond teenage memories. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old at its centre continues to explore the infinite spaces between flesh and firmware, fantasy and reality, ones and zeroes.

And guess what? Yeule is a very good rock star, a student of the game. In their youth, stifled by Singapore’s conservative society, they escaped into Smashing Pumpkins cassettes and bashed out Pixies songs as part of a band. They filled their 2021 covers album Nuclear War Post X with homespun takes on the Breeders, Big Thief, and the Velvet Underground, among others. When David Bowie died, a teenage yeule didn’t leave their room for a week. That admiration resonates in their aesthetic bravado and alien otherness: They have cited Nintendo DS consoles and bottom-feeding deep-sea creatures as mood-board fodder for their ever-changing looks, which have recently hit upon a perfectly tattered midpoint between steampunk and cyberpunk, Max Max: Fury Road and The Matrix.
Bowie can also be heard in softscars’ walloping emotion and how Yeule gives voice to today’s outcasts—Ziggy Stardust’s Gen-Z grandkids, dismantling gender normativity in the face of heightened violence and prejudice. Mix all that with a dramatic self-loathing streak that Billy Corgan, Thom Yorke, or Gerard Way could appreciate, plus hints of Courtney Love’s confrontational spin on sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, and even some of Avril Lavigne’s middle-finger insolence (yeule has called the famed mall-punk’s 2002 debut, Let Go, particularly formative). You have someone balling up decades of misfit energy into art that speaks to our uniquely AI-addled times.
Again and again, the album pulls off a delicate tightrope walk, balancing big, widespread feelings of modern disillusionment with harrowing personal details. On “software update,” a strung-out, meta power ballad that deserves to be met with a galaxy of swaying phone lights, yeule offers a micro autobiography that could work as a social-media bio for a blinkered generation. “25, traumatized, painting white on my eyes,” they sing sweetly as if reading from a children’s book. “Handcuffs and hospitals are some things I despise.” The song references disordered eating, a condition that Yeule still struggles with, along with white lines and grams, bruises and loss. It revolves around the idea of digital immortality. “When I leave my flesh, you can download my mind/And pick out the pretty parts for you,” they offer, lines that carry an extra heft considering that, as a lonely teenager existing mostly online, the idea of living on as a series of automated posts crossed yeule’s mind. “software update” crests with yeule’s version of an algorithmic arena-rock hook—“I love you baby,” they belt atop distorted guitar chimes, perhaps addressing their fans, their friends, their partner, themself, or all four.

Even at its darkest, though, softscars is a blast, its turbo-charged riffs and sticky melodies all but begging you to crank the volume up to levels that will require future ENT visits. And there are plenty of purely fun moments here too, like the excellently titled electro-rock headbanger “cyber meat.” On the song, yeule adopts an unmistakably emo singing style—nasal and bratty—that reads as a loving tribute to the genre. “Bite me, vampy/I taste just like candy,” they tease, sounding as if they were auditioning for a Hot Topic commercial circa 2003. “cyber meat” features production and guitar from Chris Greatti, who’s in Yves Tumor’s band, and it underlines the current trend of queer artists, including yeule, Yves, and Jane Remover, who are brilliantly putting their own spin on alt-rock and emo as they subvert those genres’ historically masculine associations.

For yeule, and so many others, the sounds that glint and crunch across softscars are inherently nostalgic, harkening to a turn-of-the-century era of blissed-out innocence, when a scratched-up copy of Nirvana’s In Utero could be the most important thing in the world, and the simple stomp of a fuzz pedal could send your serotonin levels off the charts. It was also an era before the internet as we know it, before social media and its attendant ills, when the web presented hopes of breaking down old ideas and binaries instead of reinforcing them. For an artist who was raised online to choose this time to start closing their tabs and turning their metaphorical 404 errors into badges of pride feels especially meaningful. And yet softscars isn’t as simple as a rejuvenating weekend in the countryside, or a Marshall stack ringing over the hilltops. In its clash of handcrafted distortion and digital anxieties, the album faces our blurry moment at the precipice of head-spinning technological advances with a laugh and a cry. “Art, artificially,” yeule sings at one particularly fizzy point, over chugging guitars and starry synths, “I wish I was special.” Don’t we all.

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