One would think that Taeyeon doesn’t have a lot to be envious of. She is the highest-selling Korean female artist of the past decade, according to the Gaon charts, the Korean equivalent of the Billboard charts. Her career with Girls’ Generation – one of modern-day K-pop’s founding and most revered acts – as well as her own, slots her neatly into the legacy act category. In fact, as far as the meaning of the term goes, Taeyeon embodies and is a legacy of her own. So, yeah, why would she need to say “I envy you” to anyone?
As her third studio album tells us, however, ‘INVU’ (or “I-N-V-U” when spoken) isn’t about Taeyeon, the artist, or Taeyeon, the legacy. It’s about Taeyeon: the woman. After finding her “voice” and reckoning with her “purpose”, she is looking at the rosy feeling of love with a gray lens, because love is nothing if not complicated. Here, she envies how easily love comes (or doesn’t) to some people, because her own experiences with it have been fraught with disappointment.
That’s why her third venture comes off as decidedly more mature than any of her previous works – not that she ever lacked profundity, mind you. Taeyeon just happens to be one of those artists who lend a gravity to everything they say, even if they say it simply. What also makes ‘INVU’ such a delightful listen is that it seems like just the right album for Taeyeon at this point in her life and career. Love is one of K-pop’s, if not music’s, favorite concepts, but Taeyeon never puts it on a pedestal – she approaches it like she approaches everything, with a consuming self-awareness about her goals, ambitions and shortcomings. Yet, to every emotion related, she imparts a mysticism that immediately arrests.
Take for example, ‘INVU’, the title track that sets the stage for the eponymous work. The light-hearted synth-pop number – where she draws inspiration from Greco-Roman mythology – hides a much somber meaning: at some point, you have to realize that even if you give it your all, you can’t make people love you. It’s in this cruel reality that Taeyeon’s envy finds root, when she finds herself suffering while the other person stays unfazed.
She carries the larger-than-life atmospheric mysticism of ‘INVU’ throughout the album. On the slow, R&B-inspired ballad ‘Some Nights’, it imparts a poignance to the aftermath of a separation, and on the pure-pop build-up of ‘Ending Credits’, it amplifies the bittersweet acceptance of the end of a relationship.
Holding this ethereal feeling together is her excellent vocals and range – but that’s a given. “I sing as if I’m saying the lyrics in real life,” she recently told Nylon in an interview, and nowhere is it more apparent than on ‘INVU’. Here, there is an ease and comfort to how she emotes, even when she is hitting her classic high-notes. She seems entirely comfortable in what she is doing, even when is vacillating between genres.
On the pop-rock ballad ‘Can’t Control Myself’ – easily a contender for the best non-title track on the album – she takes us back to the 2000s, delivering something that would fit easily into our emo libraries populated with Avril Lavigne. Immediately after, the beautiful restraint and steady pace of ‘Set Myself On Fire’ sparks a desperation inside of us. As she asks the object of her affection if setting herself on fire would bring some warmth back into their frosty relationship, we wait for a beat to drop, for something to change, but it never comes – one of those rare moments when a seemingly incomplete track sounds perfect. A few rungs down, her soaring, encompassing voice on ‘Heart’, combined with its showmanship flair, warms on the inside.
But the actual best track on the album is ‘Toddler’, hands down. The poetry of using a blast from the past – retro, to be exact – to portray the wistfulness and longing to go back to childhood doubles the regret. Compared to another retro-leaning track on the album, ‘Timeless’ – which takes a much more hopeful outlook on the aftermath of a breakup – the picture ‘Toddler’ paints is much more piteous. Taeyeon’s soulful voice just enhances this effect, most notably on tracks like ‘Siren’ – which, by the way, is very meta of ‘INVU’, considering Taeyeon’s reputation as a vocalist.
The comparison stands true, though: like the song’s namesake, she pulls us all in with complex vocal layering. In some places, her crooning carries over over a misty landscape; in others, she breathes out words in a rush, tiding this boat over choppy waters. It’s so majestic that you don’t even realize that she’s leading you to someplace ‘Cold As Hell’. Another rock-leaning track on the album, ‘Cold As Hell’ carries in unapologetic anger and detachment – “The memory left behind is a dim ghost / There is no such thing as ‘warm-hearted’ us,” – and its obvious Taeyeon is finding it really hard to be bothered anymore.
This feeling is coincidentally evident on another track on the album, and it just so happens to be the sonic antithesis of ‘Cold As Hell’. On ‘No Love Again’, the anger of the former simmers down into deep, deep sadness, covered up with frenetic dance-pop, perhaps the musical equivalent of consoling yourself with some drinking and dancing.
Poetry also lies in the decidedly upbeat outlook Taeyeon leaves us with on the tail-end of the album. Once the hangover of ‘No Love Again’ wears off and the truth sets in, all that is left is picking up the pieces and trying to move on – which is exactly what happens on ‘You Better Not’. “If it goes dull after a long time, it won’t be as easy as a few words / It’s late, even if I look back, no, never, never,” she decides, before giving us a ‘Weekend’ to ponder it over, and closing the chapter on the ‘Ending Credits’.
The story on this particular one might have been heartbreaking and soul-crushing, but there certainly will be another chapter – hopefully, a brighter, more loving one. Till then, we’ll all nurse our bitter hearts and envy the ones who have it all.
- Release date: February 14
- Record label: SM Entertainment