In K-pop, 15 years is an almost unprecedented time for a group to remain not just together but active. On June 10, SHINee celebrated passing that milestone, marking the occasion with the release of an upbeat, sunkissed new single, ‘The Feeling’. But the princes of K-pop weren’t done with just one song, following it up a couple of weeks later with their eighth full-length album.
Over the course of one-and-a-half decades, Onew, Key, Minho and Taemin (and late singer Jonghyun) have delivered some of K-pop’s most iconic – and, sometimes, divisive – moments. There have been songs so infectious they’re still banned around exam season in Korea (‘Ring Ding Dong’), “loverholic, robotronic” chants (‘Lucifer’) and a wealth of poignant, emotional songwriting. But, with a career spanning such a long time, not everything along the way can be made of pure gold, and, unfortunately, that’s the case with ‘Hard’.
The four-piece’s first full-length record in two years, following the 2021 repackaged album ‘Atlantis’, ‘Hard’ is perfectly pleasant; not a bad album in the slightest, but also not one that reaches the dizzying heights SHINee are capable of. They are a group that have blazed their own path through the industry and have stood out as a singular, inimitable band along the way, but here they blend in a little more.
The title track and its immediate tracklist neighbour ‘Juice’ mine elements of hard-hitting hip-hop but feel more tailor-made for a different act – the latter track, in particular, courses with NCT’s DNA. ‘The Feeling’’s skittering breakbeat, meanwhile, feels more dated than the fashion choices in the band’s debut era. Other tracks are more successful at keeping things SHINee, with the likes of ‘Satellite’ and ‘Identity’ feeling like touchstones to their past while simultaneously adding new evolutions to their sound.
The most interesting moments – sonically, at least – come towards the end of the record. First, ‘Insomnia’ builds a nocturnal realm for the quartet to creep through, their restrained vocals in the song’s opening lines like hushed messages sent while the rest of the world is sound asleep. As the track grows, it becomes a jazz-tinged dream; a smoky, hazy and slinky lullaby that would make any sleepless night go from frustrating to divine.
Afterward, ‘Gravity’ wraps up the whole record in soft minimalist R&B tones, its gentle approach making it feel like a sibling song to ‘Insomnia’, but this time soundtracking the emergence of sunrise at the end of a long night awake. Its choruses are punctuated by layers of pillowy backing vocals, which add new levels of comfort to an already cosy finale.
If ‘Hard’’s sound isn’t always hitting, then the album’s lyrics go a long way to uphold SHINee’s high standards. There are moments on this record that range from powerful to poetic, each helping to redeem the album’s less impressive points. “Made it through the long nights / All those scars, still you shone so bright,” Key declares early on the title track, highlighting the beauty that can follow surviving tough times. Minho takes up a similar position of mature strength on ‘The Feeling’, admitting: “I know that we’ll always make blunders, nothing’s guaranteed in the end / Whatever answers we seek, they’re unfolding, tied to every decision.”
Among these encouragements to carry on, there are also plenty of lines that evoke emotion. “I forgot the time, I’m drawn to you,” Onew sings on the sultry percussive dance of ‘10X’, paying tribute to someone who makes life’s trials worth it. “You show me a better way, this never-ending night.” On ‘Gravity’, Taemin calls upon science for his devastating part: “Like the moon and earth circle around you, even if you push it, you can feel the attraction.”
It’s ‘Identity’, though, that carries the strongest and most impactful message of all. “Make me wild and free / Now I know my identity, I don’t wanna hide it,” the four members sing in any early chorus, settling into their own skin with jubilation. They cite echoes of Jungian psychology as they describe their path to this point (“It’s been quite long, the towards me seems to be just the beginning / I’m the ego,” Minho offers, while Onew adds: “Hidden dark shadow, it’s another me”) and, in the end, take their earlier request into their own hands. “I’ll be wild and real,” they assert. “Shout to the world my identity.” That’s not just an important missive for SHINee’s listeners to hear, but one that the group should keep in mind as they continue forward for more unparalleled years in the world of K-pop.
- Release date: June 26, 2023
- Record label: SM Entertainment