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[Review][Album] Shinhwa – “The Return”

written by: testamentvm

The last time Shinhwa released an album was in 2008 with “Volume 9”.

In the time between “Volume 9” and “The Return”, North Korea blew up a ship and shelled an island. South Korea discovered that rocker Seo Taiji was secretly married to actress Lee Jia as they were in the midst of a nasty divorce.  TVXQ broke up, and JYJ was banned from TV appearances.  Han Ye Seul became the first actress to actually run away from the set of a currently airing drama.  Kim Jong Il finally kicked the bucket.  Kpop finally came of age in Japan.  Music Bank filmed its first show overseas.  JYJ bcame the first idol group to hold a concert in South America.  Reality shows finally gained traction in Korea with the success of audition shows.  Cable channels began to film their own dramas.  Korea, in a complete 180 reversal of its previous position, signed into law a free trade agreement with the United States (remember the mad cow protests of 2008?).

The point is, things have changed quite a bit since Shinhwa last released an album.  Four years is a long time to be away in kpop – time enough to make one question the utility/value of maintaining an identity and image as a group, even one as popular as Shinhwa.  As it turns out, maintaining a solo career south of the DMZ is much harder without the boundless enthusiasm of fans that idol groups are so good at engendering.  Even Eric, arguably Shinhwa’s most popular member, hit a rough snag when his comeback drama, “Spy Myung Wol”, was critically panned and averaged a dead-last place viewership throughout its run, finally crawling to the finale with a pitiful 4% – not to even mention the Han Ye Seul fiasco.  So perhaps “The Return” of 2012 wasn’t so much about keeping a promise to Shinhwa Changjo as much as it was to reset the solo careers, post-military service, of the individual Shinhwa members (or to bring attention and cash into their fledging companies, as it were in the case of Andy, Eric, and Jun Jin).  Or perhaps what we’re seeing from Shinhwa is what really we’re getting – that “The Return” represents the latest attempt from the original Hallyu boyband to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive market.  They have undoubtedly left their mark on Hallyu, as evidenced by the turnout for Shinhwa’s Seoul concert (attended by members of 2PM, Andy’s Teen Top, Kim Tae Woo, and the SM coterie – SHINee, TVXQ, Super Junior, and SNSD).  The question remains if they can continue to do so.

Regardless of the intent behind “The Return”, Shinhwa bent backwards (perhaps even dislocated a knee) to assemble a group of prominent Korean producers for their latest album, including producer Yoon Il Sang and lyricist Kim Eana from Nega Network (of BEG and Sunny Hill fame), Kim Do Hyun, Jung Jae Yoon, and the team of Jae Chong and Eddie Shin of Aziatix.  In typical kpop fashion, the credits for title track, “Venus”, belong to three white men.

Shinhwa’s “Return” is not a complete one.  Or at least, not one that is internally consistent.  Rather than a cohesive whole, “The Return” feels like two separate EPs awkwardly welded together, and while the album may have intended to tell a story of triumph, the story it inadvertently told was one of dispute and compromise.

There exist two very different Shinhwas – one is a group keenly aware of its shelf life, and willing to push back against prevailing trends and norms with the goal of justifying their relevance.  The other is a group that is also cognizant of its mortality, but as a result, seeks to stay the course with time-tested musical styles and techniques, ultimately choosing to rely exclusively on nostalgia to move sales numbers.

In this album, we see both Shinhwas.  “Venus” is an impressive single (produced by Andrew Jackson, Gandalf Roudette, Joshua Thompson).  It brings a welcome breath of fresh air into the claustrophobic hotbox that is kpop, and sounds like something that could actually be played on radio outside of Asia.  For choosing something so obviously not “kpop”, I wholeheartedly commend Shinhwa.  The absurd amount of musical groupthink and musical inbreeding in Korea is oftentimes difficult to resist (see CN Blue’s latest interview), and unfortunately it’s also a large factor in preventing kpop from growing and developing its own unique sound.  However, as many have already pointed out, the similarity between “Venus” and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love” feat. Rihanna, also reveals the song’s weakness.  Until kpop stops hiring B-list producers from the “West” to create watered down pastiches of the latest Western pop trends, kpop will never be more than a derivative work that will never merit serious consideration by the non-Asian mainstream (see AsianJunkie’s well-written op-ed).  The Swedish House Mafia-inspired “Red Carpet” is even better than “Venus”, with its clubby supersaw lead and progressive house anthem (produced by Shinhwa’s Lee Minwoo – who goes by M in the production credits – and Kim Do Hyun).

Then “The Return” moves from progressive dance to the horrifically regressive “Move With Me”, a tasteless 90’s throwback track that serves no other purpose then to allow Shinhwa to live out their latent west coast G-style rap fantasies.  It’s the auditory equivalent of cosplay, though the silver lining of this dark cloud is Eric, who, surprisingly shines on this track, despite his indulgent verses and lacking vocal presence.

The album then takes a turn for the worse, beginning with the Yoon Il Sang-produced “Welcome”, which features an elementary and unattractive hook, and a surprisingly dull structure that made the verses more exciting than the chorus, especially with another stellar performance from Eric, who, despite referring to himself as a dope MC – old habits die hard – manages to pull off one of the best idol rapper performances in a while, with almost the right amount of braggadocio.  Equally disappointing is “Stay”, an unapologetically cheesy trance-inspired number that sounds like it was stolen from a Dance Dance Revolution demo library.

Be My Love“, a warm, sunny 80’s style groove with a 90s kpop feel, is a much-needed palate cleanser from the string of disasters that preceded it.  Notwithstanding the forced “funk”, it’s a song that, through its sheer earnestness, will put smiles (or smirks) on the faces of listeners.

The next track, “Re-Love” is an unimaginatively written counterpart of the serviceable “Hurts”, featuring the same tired instruments and banal chord patterns of k-R&B style.  Not much can be said for the song except for its astoundingly predictable progression, with an utter lack of interesting production elements to redeem it in any way.

Interestingly, the final track, “Breathin’”, attempts an epic and yet reflective finale.  The layers of pads and the atmospheric development, not to mention the fact that the drum kit sounds like it was sampled straight from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, add to create the impression of that Shinhwa “grandeur”.  Though not the greatest example of sweepingly expansive idol grandeur, it is the first song to have attempted this in a while, and is one of the only songs on the album where its position on the tracklisting actually makes sense.

Overall, “The Return “ was conceptually inconsistent and variable, and smacked of unprofessional, unplanned chaos.  It is this complete lack of structure and theme to this album that detracted from the otherwise (mostly) positive elements of the individual songs.  Unfortunately for Shinhwa, this represents the crux of their dilemma – and for that matter, the dilemma for all k-idol groups past a certain age.  How does an idol group whose fans and members are now in their 30s, survive?  Does it market itself to a new generation of teens?  And if so, how does one compete against groups in their prime?  Or does it play to the nostalgia of their original fans and create songs reminiscent of their earlier work?  In this album, this was the issue that Shinhwa wrestled with, but from the quality of the album and the selection of the songs, Shinhwa failed to resolve this question in a satisfying or conclusive way.  And as a result, they fail to make a convincing argument for their continued relevance.

Instead of choosing one over the other, this album represents a compromise, in which Shinhwa hedges their bets –  songs like “Venus” and “Red Carpet” to draw the attention of the younger generation with its catchy beat, and songs like “Move With Me” and “Re-Love” to cater to Changjo’s nostalgia for ballads and 90s R&B.  But by tying themselves to the past, Shinhwa creates self-imposing limits that will prevent them from ever straying too far into the future, effectively killing the possibility of any real musical growth.

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18 thoughts on “[Review][Album] Shinhwa – “The Return”

  1. LOL..you’re the only reviewer who knew about Shinhwa (or at least have heard of them) but gave them 2 stars only :D
    @Lin Yang when did SME said that? 8yrs ago? coz Shinhwa has left since 2003 i think~

  2. not sure where you got SMW’s rating from but the last episode was 6% (nation wide) or 7.1% overall average. It was a flop but it’s hard to compete against the 2 sageuk in the same time slot (just look at Wild Romance going against The Moon Embraces the Sun). Wish he has better luck next times XD

    I’m sorry but this is my kinds music, it’s well grounded :D

  3. and I’m not sure if you know what the concept of the album is… they want to give something that showing Shinhwa with their Past,Present and Future and the song choices definitely consistent with this theme. Whether it strikes you particular taste is personal taste… but their concept is consistent and nothing is unprofessional about this album ^^

  4. great review. got to agree with you here. some great elements but overall the album is forgettable. i expect more from a veteran group. perhaps the kpop world is really for the youngun’s (which breaks my heart);

  5. the author’s effort is great. But this review is lacking “originality of the approach” ,”clarity of the organisation”and “strength of the argument”. it is explicit subjective judgement.

    this review 3/10

    thank you for taking your time to evaluate this album.

    • Of course this review is subjective. Art criticism as a whole is subjective. I can understand if you disagree, but I don’t know why you take issue with the fact that a review expresses an opinion.

      • what i mean is you are looking at an album and deciding it based on emotional views,preconceived ideas and your own hidden agenda. not to mention that you clearly left out some important facts. this is the reason why i rated your review 3/10.

  6. I’m kind of with Phi on this album: I don’t think they necessarily have to choose between catering to older generations and appealing to younger listeners. It’s a challenge to do both, but for an idol group of their age (lol) it’s their only option, otherwise what’s the point? They have to have appeal across generations in order to be relevant. I actually think they suffer more from crappy song choice than they do from inconsistency: that is, had they gotten better songs, it would have been a better album overall, even if the tracks ranged in style. If the electro was actually GOOD or at least more interesting, the feel of the album (and our opinions of it) would be totally different.

    • The issue with catering to younger and older generations is that forces Shinhwa (or any group that chooses to take this road) to bind itself to a very specific type of album structure – one that essentially takes two EPs, sticks them together, and calls the result an album. An EP and an album are two different creative units. I like to think of the EP as the auditory counterpart of a short story or a novella – it tells the story of an event, or tries to capture a “piece of life”. An album is a richer, fuller work that attempts to tell a story of the most important years of a life, one with a beginning, a climax, and a conclusion. Alternatively, an album can discuss a common theme (breakups). But an EP and an album, even with the same theme, have differential effects conveying the same message. I take issue with the fact that Shinhwa fails to, even after being freed from the influence of big label executives, take advantage this opportunity and show us their artistry. And they certainly have the status and prestige to attempt the “risk”. But instead, they took the “easier” route and decided to put two EPs together. I don’t think that they had bad songs per se – I think all their songs were produced well (that’s not saying that they were the catchiest beats in the world). However, listening to them in the context of this album was awful. This album was all over the place.

      I recognize that we live in the era of the single, and most people don’t buy the whole album, but I think there’s still something to be said for creating an internally consistent unit of music that tells a narrative. I think to a certain extent, consumers realize when they’re seeing the real deal and when they’re being had, and will buy the album when they feel something is artistically meaningful. I think Shinhwa tacitly recognizes this too, because they chose to release an album instead of an EP. So it’s very disappointing to see that so little was done with “The Return”.

      • I’m guessing this album got a failing grade from you mainly cus of expectation for it to appeal to the young audience or telling certain story than the songs themselves… I’m not surprise you feel there’re 2 EPs (if not 3 imo) in this album. Again I hate bringing up their Past-Present-Future theme again but I wish they had put out 3 separate EPs reflecting those 3 themes within an album (is that even possible? XDD) so the message is clearer.

        I agree with you that they probably play safe and didn’t go all out to pursuit the young audiences which I doubt is their main goal for this album cus obviously they still have the long time fans to look after (who mostly love ballads/pop song more than electro/dance). So in that sense I think they manage put together something that serviceable for both set of audiences…. Is that the right balance, I don’t know but as an average listener I’m happy with the song selection for this album. Beside it’s easier to take risk with an EP or a digital single than a full album? :)

        As for Eric’s lack of vocal, yes he’s no where vocalist but a full blown rapper…. I really love all his rap parts in this album. He delivers them with such strength and lot of punch. The new style of rap in Hurts is really swoon worthy

        I was shock seeing the album getting such failing grade from this review cus elsewhere the general reviews are quite positive (even from the non fans alike) but in a way, I guess it’s nice seeing another perspective whether we agree with it or not :)

      • you raise good points, though I still disagree that they were forced into the two-EP model because they were catering to different generations. Good music can be appreciated by all ages, whether it’s retro or current; and you can incorporate old -school and modern sounds into a cohesive whole. The way I see it, they just didn’t put a whole lot of good music on this album. That being said, my standards for k-pop albums have been considerably lowered over the course of my fandom – especially for idol groups. And Shinhwa IS an idol group, even if they’ve parted ways with SM. So there’s only so much I expected from them, I suppose, and the album simply met that expectation.

        Also, I’m curious: have you listened to past Shinhwa albums? If yes, are the older ones better or worse than this album, or about the same? You definitely seem disappointed with “The Return” so I’m wondering if you’re a Shinhwa fan from before, or you were just expecting a lot considering the hype and the legend surrounding the group.

  7. Good review – I was actually waiting for you guys to review this to see what y’all thought…

    I got a very dichotomous feeling from the album as well. Some of the cuts (e.g., “Move With Me”) sounded as stale and outdated as the late 90’s stateside boyband era, while others (“Venus,” “Hurts” and “Let It Go”) actually proved these boys could hang with the current K-pop heavyweights. Also, I wouldn’t necessarily call Andrew Jackson & co. B-listers — they’ve worked with Brit-Brit and Leona Lewis, among others. And I’m surprised “Let It Go” didn’t even get a mention…it’s probably one of the strongest tracks on the LP, IMHO. Jae Chong def. hasn’t lost the songwriting touch from his Solid days.

    • Thanks for your comment. I thought “Let It Go” sounded good, but similar to the Aziatix material out there now, so I decided to leave it out. Also, the review was starting to run long. But I definitely love Jae Chong’s stuff, and hopefully will be able to review his work in more detail in the future.

      As for the “B-list producer” bit, I did a bit of searching trying to find information on Andrew Jackson, Gandalf Roudette, and Joshua Thompson, but to no avail. None of them had primary production credits in either Leona Lewis’s first or second albums. The same goes for Britney’s last three albums. Therefore, I made the leap and assumed that they had some minor role in the album/worked for bigger producers as arrangers. What sealed the deal for me was that I couldn’t even find an official website for any of the three.

  8. Pingback: Month In KPOP – April « McRoth's Residence

  9. Pingback: [Review] [Album] Shinhwa – ‘The Classic’ | McRoth's Residence

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