Liyou conceptualized Welfare as a take on Korean p’ansori, a minimalist style of folk opera built entirely around simple drum rhythms and expressive, winding vocalizations. In p’ansori, because there are almost no other instruments, the performer drives the song using the cadence of their voice, with each inflection helping to tell a little bit more of the story. Likewise, Welfare casts Liyou’s text-to-speech bot as the album’s unnerving narrator, using small wrinkles in its delivery to uncover peculiar new emotional textures. On “I’m Going to Therapy,” after a nervous intro in which Liyou admits that they haven’t told their mother they’re seeing a therapist, the automated voice appears against total silence, recounting a painful memory of Liyou’s mother: “You told me when I was six years old, ‘What kind of fucking boy cries because of X, Y, and Z?’” Even coming from an A.I. voice, that “fucking” conveys so much awful pathos and bitterness. Shortly after, over a bed of what sounds like warped church organ floating in negative space, a human voice representing Liyou’s father enters the picture coated in booming distortion, uttering, “You need to get him in check.” All these moments play like dramatizations transcribed directly from Liyou’s life, presented here through the rawest, most primitive music software available.
Each passage of Welfare subverts and expands on the last. After the hauntingly gorgeous piano ballad “Unnie”—where, in a trembling whisper, Liyou uses their actual voice to wrestle with defining themselves against Korean gender stereotypes—“Who You Feed” arrives like an unholy demon birth, briefly switching the album’s POV to Liyou’s parents and casting Liyou themself as the real monster. “I’m getting bigger,” a childlike digital voice announces over a disturbing collage of wet, breathing mouth noises. “And bigger,” it repeats, getting deeper each time. Just when it seems like the mood can’t get any more unsettling, the voice gutturally proclaims, “I’m getting tired of you”; in an instant, Liyou takes a magnifying glass to the horrors of parenthood, looking at their own parents’ hardships with raising a child and treating them with the same sense of bizarre dread. By the time the album reaches its ending with “Some Form of Kindness,” it feels like Liyou has learned how to negotiate this complex familial love, accepting its embrace and recognizing its limits in the same humbled breath.
After such a dense, pointedly profound work, Practice sounds more diffuse. Where Welfare plays like a four-part miniature theater piece, Practice’s sketches are all over the place, like Polaroids capturing ordinary day-to-day moments. Recorded over several weeks while Liyou was visiting family in Seattle and their grandmother was simultaneously suffering from a serious illness, Practice feels less like a grandiose statement of intent and more like the work of an artist piecing together their grief in the moment, turning over brief conversations and flashes of memory to uncover hidden meanings.