“Will you hide with me in this game?” asked Tomorrow X Together’s Hueningkai on ‘The Dream Chapter: Magic’’s ‘Can’t We Just Leave The Monster Alive?’. It hinted at the fantastical escape that formed the heart of ‘The Dream Chapter’ series, which followed a young boy through the highs and lows of teen life – friends, school, romance – but always offered a magical escape to run away to.
- READ MORE: Tomorrow X Together – ‘The Dream Chapter: Eternity’ review: Korea’s pop hopes are worth the hype
Now, as TXT move on to ‘The Chaos Chapter’ with their second studio album ‘Freeze’, the protagonist in their story has to face reality. The group – completed by Yeonjun, Soobin, Beomgyu and Taehyun – have always aimed to share authentic stories that teens and young adults can relate to today, and the record examines the disruption and disorder that comes with being thrust into the real world at any point in time, but especially during a global pandemic.
Nowhere is that upheaval felt more keenly than on the album’s closing track ‘Frost’. Its hyperpop sound, all snapping trap beats, ominous synths and glitching percussion, provide the perfect disorientating and dizzying backdrop. “Voices calling out for me, I’m in chaos now,” leader Soobin and maknae (a Korean term for the “youngest person [in a group]”) Hueningkai share. “Really lost my mind / Really, really, really, really lost it.”
While everyone’s lives have been restricted by the coronavirus, you have to feel for those whose youth have effectively been put on hold and left with only the dreary bits of life to exist in. The retro pop of ‘No Rules’ might paint a buoyant picture sonically, but its lyrics capture the frustrations of being robbed of your freedom and fun. “This place has been limited,” Soobin sighs. “Can we please go back to where I was before? / Where there are no rules / I wanna go back.”
On ‘What If I Had Been That PUMA’ – a nod to ‘The Dream Chapter: Eternity’’s ‘PUMA’ and its tale of a big cat breaking out of a zoo – the band return to the dream of living in a video game. Instead of a sweet retreat, though, now the fun has been sucked out of it, and the members are all too aware that their actions – stay safe in an enclosure or roam free – will have consequences. “Jaded in this endless game / I can feel the headache now,” Taehyun sings, sounding like he’s ready to put down the controls and find a new form of escapism instead.
It’s no wonder that cynicism drips through chunks of ‘Freeze’. Soft ballad opener ‘Anti-Romantic’ is down on love, viewing an eventual crushing end as an inevitability. It’s a reminder of how intense falling in and out of love can be in your youth, from the dazzling highs to those break-ups that feel like your whole world is caving in. Expressing that extreme emotion needs dramatic, heart-wrenching lyrics, which Beomgyu, Taehyun and Soobin translate viscerally in the line: “As my entire heart burns / I’m afraid that only black ashes will remain.”
On the refreshing, summery ‘Ice Cream’, they sink deeper into misery and search for ways to bring others down with them. Misery loves company, after all. In most pop songs, our favourite icy treat is portrayed as something sweet and sunny, but TXT deploy the invention they’ve cultivated over their career so far to turn that notion on its head. “It melts away as if it was a dream / Unhappy like ice cream,” Hueningkai and Yeonjun sing.
In these difficult times, salvation does appear though. ‘Freeze’’s main theme is one of love giving us a reason to go on and making all the chaos of the world worth our perseverance. It’s an idea the group return to several times across the record. It appears first on the emo-rock title track ‘0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)’ – co-written by Mod Sun and BTS’ RM, and featuring Seori – in which Soobin declares: “In this world of zero / I found warmth that’s you.”
Later, on the equally rocky ‘Dear Sputnik’, Beomgyu compares a lover to light in the darkness: “In a crumbling world / I found a star called ‘you’.” ‘Magic’, the band’s first English track (2019’s ‘Cat & Dog’ was originally in Korean before an alternate English-langauge version was released), meanwhile offers hope even for those going through the motions. “Everybody clap your hands / If you’ve got a broken heart just take a chance,” they chant, exhilarated by their own experience of finding love in a hopeless place.
Prior to the release of ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’, TXT’s back catalogue was a skip-free zone. This new record not only keeps up that 100 per cent strike rate of golden tunes, but also gives us their best release to date. It’s an album that represents huge growth. Their vocals are more powerful and emotive than ever, whether Taehyun is delivering a desperate, grungy growl on ‘0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)’ or Yeonjun is spitting out playful, cool raps.
Creatively, too, they’ve had more of a hand in the making of this record. Each member contributed to the writing of the songs, while Hueningkai makes his production debut on the stomping ‘Dear Sputnik’. Like true Gen Z artists, they pull from an extensive palette of genres, but manage to make each – be it angsty rock or a return to disco-pop – feel like it’s a sound they’ve been honing for ages. No wonder they’ve been crowned both the leaders and ‘it boys’ of K-pop’s fourth generation, two titles they’ve more than earned with their commitment to candid storytelling and forward-thinking originality. Life might be bleak at the moment, but at least we have TXT to turn our many lemons into a wealth of lemonade.
- Release date: May 31
- Record label: Big Hit Music