IU – ‘LILAC’ review: a near-perfect, wide-ranging pop gem from K-pop’s darling

Bolder, louder and more fun, IU steps out of her comfort zone to offer pure pop escapism on her fifth studio album

Lilac flowers and its colours represent a myriad of symbolisms, from rebirth and newfound confidence to innocence and first love. IU wholly embraces all those themes on her fifth studio album ‘LILAC’. Described as a love letter to her 20s, the record is a farewell to the singer’s defining decade. But instead of sappy songs waxing nostalgic over her salad days, IU (who turns 29 in ‘Korean age’ this year) sends off her young adult self with a bang.

Every track on ‘LILAC’ is bolder and louder than what she’s put out before – the K-pop superstar swaps her subdued brand of sun-kissed pop for dancefloor hits. Take for example the retro groove-laden ‘Coin’, which features the singer singing in a lower register and rapping on her own song for the first time, or the infectious city pop-inspired title track. Even the synth-pop lead single ‘Celebrity’, an ode to embracing imperfections, is a surprising but welcome addition to IU’s catalogue.

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This new musical direction found on ‘LILAC’ is due in part to IU’s decision to create her “final” album of her 20s from the point of view of a producer, rather than a songwriter, working alongside new collaborators like WOOGIE, Sumin, Junny and AKMU’s Lee Chan-hyuk. On the flip side, it also stems from a desire to step away from her “familiar personal style”, with a newfound belief in herself to make whatever type of music she wants.

“I thought a lot about whether I should use [my] familiar personal style for my story of greeting and farewell, or if I should use a totally new sound and vibe and therefore make the ‘beginning and end’ clear,” IU explains in an interview with W Korea, as translated by Soompi. She adds that she also had to learn to sacrifice some control in order for the project to come to life. “I came to the conclusion that there’s no need for there to be a self-composed song by IU just because it’s an IU album,” she says.

Yet, despite the sheer number of contributors on the record, IU ensures that there’s still a hint of herself on each song. The guitar-driven R&B cut ‘Empty Cup’ is reminiscent of her debut mini-album ‘Lost & Found’, but more mature, while the syrupy ‘Ah Puh’ is a refreshingly adult take on her earlier bubblegum pop jingles.

The only guest artist on ‘LILAC’ comes in the form of ‘Troll’, a breezy reggae-tinged duet with K-R&B prince DEAN. It’s an unexpected outcome from the duo, who’d previously teamed up in 2017 for a live performance of ‘Can’t Love You Anymore’ during IU’s Palette tour. Co-written together, their first official joint effort features a flirty and whimsical narrative; the pair play the role of an on-and-off couple who secretly enjoy being trapped in a never-ending break-up and make-up cycle.

You can call late at night without feeling guilty,” IU coaxes DEAN before he interrupts to confess, “I admit that I almost crossed thе line.” If not for the pair’s undeniable chemistry, the song would’ve been an unconvincing attempt at playing coy, but they make it work, delivering a light-hearted and compelling story. From G-Dragon to Zion.T to Hyukoh’s Oh Hyuk, IU has always had a knack for picking the right people to complement her, and her decision to collaborate with DEAN after years of anticipation has certainly been made worthwhile.

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While collabs are the highlights of every IU project, her records would not be complete without her staples: ballads. On ‘LILAC’ she whips up two that display her effortless powerhouse vocals. Each five minutes long, ‘Hi Spring Bye’ and ‘My Sea’ are future IU classics in their own right, holding their own against favourites like ‘Through The Night’ and ‘Ending Scene’. However, if one had to choose a more superior song, ‘My Sea’ easily blows the nostalgic ‘Hi Spring Bye’ out of the water.

Bolstered by a gorgeous string ensemble and choir, ‘My Sea’ is a breath-taking reminder of why IU is one of the most beloved vocalists of her generation. She belts her emotions with such clarity and conviction: “I want to become a wave and run anywhere / Being a little scared, I slowly open my eyes”. When she flawlessly nails that climactic high note on the song, IU proves once again that she is someone who is able to convey intimate vulnerability with grandiose, sending chills down the spine. “I don’t close my eyes to the darkness that locks me up anymore / I won’t pretend I don’t know myself again,” she declares.

‘LILAC’ comes to a close with ‘Epilogue’, a swaying slow-burning number that recalls the vintage stylings of her 2013 album ‘Modern Times’. “Was it good to know me? / Was it good to love me?” she wonders. “Are the old songs I would sing for us still comforting?” The song, which she has dedicated to her fans, is also an apt closer that brings her roaring 20s to a bittersweet conclusion.

Nearly 13 years into her career, there’s no one in the K-pop scene who does it quite like IU or can match her level of artistic authenticity. Whether she’s churning out minimalistic gems or arena-sized anthems, IU has always been a force to be reckoned with. She’s a talented singer, songwriter and producer (as well as dancer, as the visuals for ‘LILAC’ confirm). If this is what the K-pop star can do in her 20s, imagine what else she can bring to the table when she eventually greets a new decade.

Details

IU 'Lilac'
  • Release date: March 25
  • Record label: EDAM Entertainment
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