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.