In January 2020, Abby Hwong had top surgery, and this wouldn’t be at all worth mentioning—top surgeries are just regular ol’ healthcare, and that’s not really up for legislative or judicial debate, but anyway—if they didn’t write so sharply about how it liberated them. On “Parasites,” a single from Stay Proud of Me, their debut album as NoSo, the 25-year-old L.A.-based musician—who specializes in sunlit, early-morning dream-pop that evokes Bloom-era Beach House—transforms a disturbing body into a more comfortable one. “The parasites, removed from your skin”; “Looking down I’m free / It was worth the wait”—Hwong has changed their body from a drain and a shackle to a safer place, and you can tell from their twinkling arrangements and unbothered vocals that they feel newly at ease. The album is a journey through Hwong’s past toward a place of liberty, affirmation and safety.
That partially means exploring the harmful beliefs socialized into them, which they’ve put in the work to leave behind. On “David,” a highlight that leaps into almost danceable territory during its chorus, Hwong recounts a dream in which they were an “All-American boy / With a gorgeous, pointy nose” and girls swarming all over him. Coming from an artist whose name is short for “North/South”—their response to the loaded question, “Which Korea are you from?”—“David” is both an admission of queer lust and a look at the insidious nature of internalized racism. It takes more than Hwong reaching for their true body and mind to shed their most insidious forms of self-hate, but with every sparkle of their diamond-like synths, they sound increasingly like they’re banishing that toxicity.
These beliefs often aren’t that far in their rearview mirror: The woozy ballad “Feeling Like a Woman” is less a Shania Twain nod than a look into how finding a better body doesn’t mean you suddenly love yourself. When they sing, “I was once a pretty girl too,” over crystalline, faintly honky-tonk arpeggios, it’s not a victory over the gender they were assigned at birth; their voice is filled with longing, rather than power. As Hwong travels their path, they show all the bumps and warts, the hiccups and interruptions, of coming to terms with their existence. On “Honey Understand,” they overcome paranoia—“Honey understand, it’s me against the crowds”—over drums that thwack with all the intensity of a combustion engine and synths that soar like falcons. Later, this line becomes, “Honey understand, you won’t know me but I’m proud,” delivered in what’s one of Hwong’s most confident vocal takes, and it’s a meaningful message to their future self: Keep going against all the obstacles—the destination is worth the turbulence.
“Honey Understand” is a rare moment when Hwong pushes beyond dream-pop, in this case into industrial clangor. The risks they take lie not in their music, but rather in how they travel through their lowest moments to honor their higher current state and ongoing work to improve further. “I know it seems confusing / When I yell and hide my chest,” they sing on the tender, string-flanked ballad “Everything I’ve Got,” directly naming the shame they lived with pre-surgery. They contradict this mindstate on “Sorry I Laughed”: “I’m sorry I laughed when you kissed my chest / Like a vacuum / And for lying about it,” they sing-speak atop melancholy, echo-heavy “ooh”s and “aah”s. It’s among their most precise and cutting lyrics, yet it’s also full of levity: It’s hard not to chuckle along with them. It’s as stirring as the song’s climax, when they exclaim over bursts of staccato power chords, “Felt like my body for the first time!” It’s where they’ve been heading the whole time, and they just had to look back into their past to get there.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes, he just sits. Oh, and sometimes, he critiques, too. Follow him on Twitter and find his writing at Pitchfork, MTV News, The Creative Independent and, of course, here at Paste.