Three years ago, ahead of his mandatory service in the South Korean military, Key sent off his debut solo album ‘Face’ with the self-written closing track ‘This Life’ – a song he likens to a goodbye letter squirrelled away for a friend to read when he’s gone. Then he worked on a handful of new songs for ‘I Wanna Be’, the repackaged version of ‘Face’, before disappearing from the public eye for 18 months.
2021 welcomed his return to the spotlight: first with K-pop juggernauts SHINee earlier this year with ‘Don’t Call Me’ and now with the glitzy, kitschy, six-track mini-album ‘Bad Love’. His new collection of ’80s synth-pop bangers and idle R&B cuts spins a tale of intergalactic melodrama – of a love gone horribly, poisonously wrong – befitting the idol’s bent for theatricality. It’s Key, crystallised.
“[During] my first solo album, ‘Face’, [I was] involved in making choices, but those choices were laid out for me,” Key told NME in an interview prior to the mini-album’s release. “But this time, from the beginning, I was able to say what I wanted to do, what I wanted to create, and what my vision was.”
SHINee, as a group, tend to find themselves at the cutting edge, incubating as much as predicting trends, but flying solo Key aims for a more timeless vibe – one that he’s been refining since 2018. Where ‘Face’ dabbles, ‘Bad Love’ dives headfirst into retrofuturism, a nostalgic aesthetic that captures Space Age anxieties about technology and the ever-expanding unknown. Pink-dusted planets, rayguns, curios galore – the future, as seen from the past. “That’s what this album is about,” Key said. “It’s not about creating something new, but more about bringing it back and reinterpreting it for today’s audience.”
‘Bad Love’ is at its best when it leans into the strangeness and vast possibility presented by its 20th century inspirations. From the first moments of the title track, metal clangs and warped synths grind and gurgle, like sci-fi foley. On ‘Helium’, ad libs are pitched in uncanny distortions of themselves – an alien growl here, robotic panting there – while howling sirens accent ‘Yellow Tape’. It’s not so much kitchen sink as it is tchotchke drawer: miscellaneous little oddities throughout that make the mini-album stand out from the crowd.
The story, meanwhile, is more pedestrian. Trapped in a toxic relationship, Key seeks a way out – but he keeps getting pulled in again, the line between escape and pursuit becoming blurred. In the music video for ‘Bad Love’, he runs and runs, only to find himself back where he begins. “Thrilling but mysterious circles / Feeling strange but I’m addicted to you,” he sings, punchy enunciation not unlike that of one of his idols, Lady Gaga. The swelling atmosphere of synths and a vocal performance for the books ensure that, as the title track, ‘Bad Love’ set the bar astronomically, unreachably high.
But the B-sides still put up a good fight. ‘Helium’ matches the giddy intensity of ‘Bad Love’, with Key oscillating between two vocal extremes. “Judy Jetson, take me up to space / And let’s get down and dizzy-faced,” he gasps in his lower register, before zipping back up into weightless falsetto and a full belt: “I would suffocate if I let you go / You’re the reason I can breathe.”
Following the propulsive bass of ‘Helium’, ‘Saturday Night’ is a refreshing crawl amongst the stars. “Hey Zachary, play that song, yeah / Something cool but sad,” Key dispiritedly requests, as if describing the dreamy track behind him. The mini-album’s only slight stumble is the melancholic pre-release single ‘Hate That…’ – sad, though somewhat less cool, and definitely out of place nestled between slices of time-warped dance-pop. (Still, verses from Girls’ Generation member Taeyeon aren’t too unwelcome a detour.)
Key’s time-traveling ends with a leap forward: to 2008, the year he made his debut with SHINee. Though he has just rounded the corner into his 30s, at the time he was barely coming of age. “Don’t let it all fall down / Just dream and fly high / My eighteen, my eighteen,” Key advises a younger self on heartfelt closer ‘Eighteen (End Of My World)’. With ‘Face’, Key posed a question: if he were to leave the industry after more than a decade, what would he leave behind?
Now, there are no traces of those anxieties, or any clung-to regrets. Just the imperative to stay true to that inner teenage debutant until the final bow: “So hold me tight / Because the end will come / I would love to watch the end of my / End of my world with you”. For a new generation of listeners soon to be introduced, Key’s becoming couldn’t come at a better time.
- Release date: September 27
- Record label: SM Entertainment