Review: RJ Manulid – Reassurance
“Do I have to write songs that everybody loves? With words so meaningless / Yet I’ll still smile and strum.” So goes the revelation that Filipino musician RJ Manulid comes to on “Impostor” at the very onset of his debut album Reassurance. “Get that impostor offstage,” he follows. “Goodbye.” Reassurance, then, is an album built around that same staunch self-confidence that Manulid emanates from those few lyrics. Unlike many artists’ first ventures into the music world, Manulid already seems to know who he is as a musician, showing off his artistic confidence within his album’s 40 minutes. Just like the song says, he’s just trying to stay true to himself.
Falling somewhere in between the realm of indie pop and twee bedroom pop, Manulid’s self-produced album is a light and airy affair. With a vocal quality similar to that of power pop band Never Shout Never’s Christofer Drew, Manulid’s voice and song messages are likably twee. On Reassurance, he puts that voice through some interesting vocal exercises that include, but are not limited to: harmonizing, hitting high notes, and stretching it to fit a rap-like flow. While Manulid certainly has the vocal chops to carry a song (“Start Again”), it falls a little flat on certain moments. It’s also a bit strange listening to someone with such a lean voice trying their hand at rapping. For example, on a song like “Contradictions,” Manulid does a great job keeping his lyrics on the beat, but he quickly runs out of breath on some of the song’s more lengthy rap verses. The same could be said about “Going Nowhere.” Instead of hitting you with the power of his words, the songs land like weak punches, too soft to truly impact you. On the other hand, he’s able to excel when he slows down the pace. Vocal filters and effects are also sorely underused here–it’s worth pointing out that the best song on Reassurance, the wispy, melodic “Leafshade Beach,” is one of the only instances in which he chooses to do so.
Production-wise, Reassurance is almost as stripped down as an indie pop album can get. In fact, at times the thin instrumentals fall into the trap of turning into glorified MIDI music. Simple electronic loops and melodies make up the backbone of many songs (“Take My Life Back,” “The Forgotten”), leaving more to be desired. On others, it becomes blatantly obvious that the keyboard that is being used in the tracks have that raw, plastic timbre to its sound. Manulid’s self-production, while commendable, has an unpolished, demo-like quality. Instrumental break “If You’re Still Out There…” is perhaps the biggest offender–one could easily imagine it being used as a jingle you might hear for when you’re being put on hold. But Manulid’s barebones production could be chalked off as a uniquely nostalgic stylistic choice and a limit to the kind of songs he can showcase on his own. After all, not everyone can have access to a professional sound studio. What makes Reassurance surprising, then, is how he pieces everything together with what he does have.
But despite its scuffed up production (which has a certain charm in itself), Manulid’s music is filled with heart. While many bedroom pop artists wallow in their sadness (sadbois and sadgirls), Manulid chooses the alternative route: pumping up his listeners instead of helplessly joining the pity party. “Brave Face,” for example, is an inspirational pick-me-up for the broken (“As long as air still fills your lungs / It’s not the end, please don’t give up”). “Start Again,” Manulid’s only album collaboration, finds him trading hopeful verses with local musician Khail Solo to start over. On “Gamot,” he offers a hand with his Tagalog lyrics, promising to guide you through the darkness. Even on the last song of the album, “Going Nowhere,” Manulid wraps it all up by echoing his lyrical motifs to form a worthy and thoughtful end to his album.
Much like some of his fellow Filipino bedroom pop musicians (Ruru, Mellow Fellow), there seems to be a similar promise of growth for Manulid: each of their debut projects show promise despite production difficulties, only to return with a renewed sense of identity on their sophomore effort (see: Ruru’s Sleep into Far Out). For Manulid at least, there doesn’t seem to be any signs of stopping for the burgeoning artist. Despite these minor road bumps, Manulid’s self-doled out advice on “The Forgotten” is worth paying attention to: “They may not listen yet / But one day, they’ll remember our names.” Especially for an artist as confident as Manulid, it will definitely ring true one of these days.