The Dream faction of SM Entertainment’s sprawling male collective NCT were always meant to be centred around youth. The group was envisioned to, like school, have a graduation system that would see its members move on to other units once they hit a certain age. But that original plan was scrapped and, now, the formerly adolescent-focused NCT Dream are navigating adulthood.
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It’s been six years since the seven-member group’s debut single ‘Chewing Gum’ and, as rapper Mark Lee noted at the press conference for their second full-length album ‘Glitch Mode’, they’ve grown up a lot since then. “I think that’s coming out a lot in our music,” he said of their burgeoning maturity, and the new record certainly feels like it was made by an act entering a new phase.
Aside from a couple of more in-your-face tracks (more on those later), a lot of ‘Glitch Mode’ feels fairly lowkey. Perhaps that’s the realisation that comes as you get older that you don’t always need to put on a big display to get people’s attention, but opting for a more comforting or nostalgic atmosphere on much of the tracklist has inconsistent results. ‘Teddy Bear’ opens with a mumbled rap and hushed singing from Mark and Chenle respectively, eliciting the intimate feeling of sharing whispered thoughts with the lights off and the world around you snoozing. As it progresses, it starts to feel more like a lullaby, particularly when Renjun and Chenle softly command: “Don’t worry about anything / Close your eyes.”
Later, ‘Never Goodbye’ adopts a similar nocturnal spirit, but if ‘Teddy Bear’ is the soundtrack to the dead of night, its sibling song feels like a companion to the period when day turns to dusk and stars just begin to illuminate the sky. Twinkling, ethereal melodies are sprinkled over steady percussion as NCT Dream acknowledge that sometimes people grow apart and take different paths in life. “If I can’t find the way to go together with you / I will always shine upon you from afar,” Jaemin promises, a glistening example of the song’s sweet, caring heart.
Those tracks might sparkle with tender brilliance, but others fare less well. The acoustic pop of ‘Drive’ is pleasant but, musically speaking, not particularly memorable, while the smooth and sunny R&B of ‘It’s Yours’ makes little impact until its rap verses enter the scene. It’s in these moments that the magic of NCT Dream feels lacking, their edges softened too much as they begin a new chapter.
The same can’t be said for ‘Glitch Mode’’s more energetic moments. The album opens with three typically animated songs that bring the group’s experimental and dynamic side into play. Opener ‘Fire Alarm’ is rowdy and urgent, immediately demanding your attention as the seven-piece chant: “We set fire, without hesitation we burn / So the world is surprised / We pull the fire alarm, go!” Later, Haechan and Jaemin add, “Burn it down to the ground / That alarm is gonna / Blow, blow, blow, blow, blow” with such infectious energy they almost make you want to do some fire-starting of your own.
Elsewhere, the album’s title track mixes clashing sound effects (video game beeps and a revving motor) as it shifts through several gears within minutes. There’s an elastic beat that feels irresistibly cool, a polished pop pre-chorus, lively vocals and, to close, a rock guitar juggernaut of a climax. “It’s a state of emergency,” they sing as this unfolds. “It’s a bu-buffering / I’m on that glitch mode.” It would be easy for the whole thing to feel messy and like it was about to fall apart under the weight of so many ideas, but instead it feels surprisingly, impressively cohesive.
‘Arcade’ boasts an attitude that often gets lost as you move from the heady days of youth into the responsibility of adulthood – and some good advice to boot. “Even the words that annoy my heart / I chew, eat and spit them out like gum,” Mark raps confidently at one point, later noting: “No matter what they say, cover your ears / And just be yourself.” Its hip-hop feel is matched on the ultra-slick ‘Saturday Drip’; a new anthem for weekends spent swaggering around town with your squad. “Saturday drip / Me and my clique / I took it, peak peak,” they purr throughout, while Jaemin boasts the best moment of the album when he declares: “Shout ‘veni vidi vici’ out loud / Like Caesar’s back.”
‘Glitch Mode’ as a whole feels like a balancing act – one that wants to keep running with the intense emotions and energy of youth, but also step in a calmer, more mature zone. Finding your footing in the adult world is always a rocky experience and the hit-and-miss junctures of the record reflect that well. Largely, though, NCT Dream have moments of brilliance that show great promise for the unit’s now-extended life path.
- Release date: March 28
- Record label: SM Entertainment