By Eli Enis
The wide-ranging embrace of Mid-Air Thief‘s Crumbling defies every wonky metric and hype-hounding qualifier for success that the music industry places on artists today. The South Korean musician doesn’t have a life-affirming narrative or a compelling personal story arc. He doesn’t manage a Fun And Engaging voice on Twitter or Instagram. And he doesn’t have a must-see live show, a zany creative process, or any sharp political overtones meant to shatter the way we think about the world. In a hypothetical boardroom meeting between stuffy money-movers in suits, the only thing that stands out on Mid-Air Thief’s resume is his magnificently beautiful, imitable, and forward-thinking music.
Very little else is known about the reclusive prodigy. He refuses to reveal his age, the region of the country he lives in, or his birth name. He refers to himself only as “Mr. Mid-Air Thief” while addressing press and fan inquiries. He doesn’t have any social media accounts related to his music, and he’s never spent a cent on promoting or marketing either of his albums (2015’s Gongjoong Doduk or 2018’s Crumbling, both of which he self-released) or any of the glitchy beat music he used to make under the name Hyoo. He’s never performed live, and he’s wearing a full-face rabbit mask over his head in his only existing press photo.
Yet somehow Mid-Air Thief has developed a rabid international cult following. Crumbling, initially released in July 2018, is now the 15th highest-rated album of that year on user-based scoring catalog Rate Your Music. It’s raved about in the incredibly popular indie music subreddit r/indieheads. The record’s individual song streams amount to well over a million on Spotify alone. And when it was re-released physically and digitally via U.S. indie eclectics Topshelf Records in June, it sold out of its first pressing within a day.
But most impressively, Crumbling was nominated for two achievements at the 2019 Korean Music Awards: Album of the Year and Best Dance & Electronic Album. It won the latter, but Mr. Thief couldn’t make it to the ceremony to celebrate. Instead, his collaborator Summer Soul, who wrote and sang her own parts on much of Crumbling, attended to accept the award — an accolade that Mr. Thief is conflicted to have even received in the first place.
“When they called and said I was nominated, I asked them [to] please not to,” he wrote in a sparse email interview with MTV News, in which he deliberately dodged a number of questions and had difficulty responding to those he did answer. “I didn’t think it fit into the category of Dance & Electronic. Labeling music is often pointless, yes, but don’t you get quite a solid picture of a certain type when you see the word ‘Dance/Electronic’? I just didn’t think it fit. I guess what I mean is I’m very ungrateful haha.”
He may just be overprotective of his work (and rightly so), but the connotations that come with the category are completely unrepresentative of what Crumbling actually sounds like. Folktronica is perhaps the most accurate tag, particularly because the record itself is a sonic portmanteau. In a song like “These Chains,” the purring, gurgling, and crackling synths are woven seamlessly into the swirling acoustic guitar strums and pitter-pattering drum passages. At the very end of the nine-minute centerpiece “Crumbling Together,” a simultaneous splattering of intense picking and squishy electronic percussion emulates the sound of sudden rainfall cascading down a windshield. Crumbling is full of little moments in which totally inorganic compositions recall the most earthly phenomena.
The album blends together digital and acoustic instrumentals with a supreme level of ingenuity, drawing influence from turn-of-the-decade psych-pop acts like Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, but with the exquisite production and maximalist minimalism of the post-Blonde and 22, A Million era. It’s texturally rich, densely layered, and restlessly dynamic music, but Mr. Thief and Summer Soul’s fluttery, wind-sailing vocals maintain a serene hold over the colorfully mutating arrangements. For as lively as the album is, there’s never an opportune moment to dance — but rather to sip quietly and let yourself fall deeper into their utopian wonderland.
The execution is masterful, but it certainly doesn’t sound effortless. Mr. Thief, who produced the entire thing and played every instrument, says he worked on the album for a year and a half before he felt it was ready. “It took so long because I started the music-making process over in the middle,” he wrote. “After a week of not working, then listening with fresh ears, I was horrified at what I had made so far. So I had to start over from the beginning. Also a singer quit, so there was some adjustment time for that too.”
The other singer’s departure is what catalyzed his relationship with Summer Soul, who has her own relatively successful indie career in Korea. Mr. Thief says she messaged him to commend him on his first record, and since he thought her voice was “so nice and sweet,” he decided to reach out in his moment of desperation. She wasn’t able to come work with him in person, but she sent her vocal takes over email and he placed them into the tracks, engineering the incredibly natural chemistry that’s heard on the record. The mixing and overall production of the album is no less than high quality, especially for what’s essentially a bedroom project. Nevertheless, Mr. Thief is convinced he’s still a complete novice.
“The more I read and learned about recording and mixing, the more I realized I’m so clueless and also that so much is required to sound GOOD GOOD,” he wrote, adding the capitalization for emphasis. “So I thought it would be nice to have no pressure to sound professionally good and make whatever, if I do homemade-type music. I always loved that kind of one person having fun and making whatever at home without any care standard.”
In a recent (equally untalkative) interview with Uproxx, Mr. Thief said that one of the best shows he’s ever been to was seeing Andy Shauf, another hermetic cult songwriter who makes dazzlingly crisp indie-pop at his own pace and on his own terms. It’s also worth noting that the idyllically blueish horizon on the album artwork for Crumbling recalls two other album covers in particular. One is Duster’s renowned slowcore classic Stratosphere, which uses a very similar tonal palette to convey its stormy vastness. The other is (Sandy) Alex G’s beloved debut Race, which features a handful of unidentified people standing atop a dirt mound, drawing all attention away from the bright cerulean sky behind them. The far-off fisherman in front of the gigantic skyline on Crumbling‘s cover is sort of like a combination of the two.
Each of those aforementioned artists has a unique sense of mystique about them — whether it be their reluctance to speak to their creative intentions, or the magical attributes their art has developed over years of fan deification, or the ways in which their sounds have influenced their respective genres. Maybe tomorrow, Mr. Mid-Air Thief will remove his mask, leak his seventh-grade report card, and reveal that he’s just a dude who happens to put sounds together in a way that resonates with thousands of people. Crucially, it may resonate in person soon, too: He hinted that a full-band live line-up is in the works. But that, like everything else he does, is not being rushed.
Until then, his air of mystery feels like a product of the supernatural world his music beckons you to enter.