SHINee – ‘Don’t Call Me’ review: an identity crisis hidden behind a mostly solid album

The Princes of K-pop continue to deliver the bops but only showcase glimpses of their musicality

SHINee’s back, so to speak. Three of them are back in a physical sense from mandatory military service – youngest member Taemin has yet to enlist. They’re also back in a literal sense as a group. But when it comes to their music, the Princes of K-pop still seem to be finding their feet after a lengthy two-and-a-half-year hiatus.

K-pop is an ever-changing landscape, there’s no doubt about that. And any given group’s next song or concept is as unpredictable as the industry itself. SHINee are no exception to that rule – their eclectic discography runs the gamut from old-school R&B to dubstep-infused electropop – but there’s always been a distinctive musicality throughout their releases. However, this through-line has entered somewhat of a grey area on SHINee’s seventh studio album, ‘Don’t Call Me’.

For the majority of the record, the boyband present a grown-up love story of sorts. SHINee – aka Onew, Key, Minho and Taemin – take listeners from the beginnings of a simple crush to marriage and beyond, all set to the familiar sounds of the group’s yesteryear. The funky and bouncy ‘Heart Attack’ recalls 2016’s new jack swing-inspired ‘1 Of 1’, albeit without the kitschiness, while downtempo ‘Marry You’ acts as a spiritual successor of sorts to the ’90s R&B of their early releases.

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The clear standouts on the album are ‘CØDE’ and ‘I Really Want You’, both quintessentially SHINee but in vastly different ways. The former is a spine-tingling deep house production that harks back to the genius of their 2015 single ‘View’ and, to a lesser extent, 2016’s ‘Tell Me What To Do’. The album’s penultimate track ‘Attention’ is similar although not nearly as good, in part due to the use of a dated whistle melody as the hook.

On the other hand, ‘I Really Want You’ is a bombastic pop banger that captures the energy of ‘Dream Girl’ mixed with the groove of ‘Married To The Music’, all the while trying to ride that disco resurgence train. But SHINee truly elevate the song to the next level with their outstanding vocal performance and harmonies – not to mention the ad-libs from Taemin and especially Key on the outro.

The boyband also try their hand at more sensual material – to varying degrees of success. ‘Kiss Kiss’, another disco-inspired tune, comes across as boys playing dress-up, with perhaps some of the most cringey lyrics on the album: “Yeah I just need your kiss / Kiss your lips / Cherry berry taste, it’s sweet / Eyes nose lips, where else”.

But power through ‘Kiss Kiss’ and you’ll arrive at the sexy reggae grooves of ‘Body Rhythm’ – no points for guessing what this song is about, though. It might not be the most inspired song on the album (think Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s ‘Side To Side’, but with less innuendo), but the level of maturity is a pleasant surprise and even more proof that the boyband can pull off almost anything thrown at them.

Given all that, it’s unfortunate that the group’s true essence is hidden behind the opening and title track ‘Don’t Call Me’. The song itself is fine. Its blend of dark synths and hip-hop, while admittedly catchy, feels like a haphazard combination of EXO’s ‘Obsession’ with a general sampling of NCT sounds. It comes off as a bit of an afterthought – one that was tacked onto the front of the album in order for it to have a statement piece. And that might actually be the case: the song had initially been offered to fellow SM Entertainment artist BoA.

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The album comes off a tad impersonal, especially when you compare it to the preceding three-part release, ‘The Story Of Light’. Granted, that record was crafted under vastly different circumstances, following the tragic passing of fifth member Jonghyun in December 2017. But SHINee seem to have had little input, intentionally or otherwise, when it came to the making of ‘Don’t Call Me’ – at least when it came to the songwriting.

Instead, SHINee meander through echoes of their past hits, chase the latest trends and top things off with a lead single that, for better or worse, draws from the most polarising aspects of fellow SM acts. It seems like the quartet are facing an identity crisis: they know who they were, that’s evident. But they now seem unsure of who they are and who they want to be.

‘Don’t Call Me’ isn’t a bad album per se. The hits easily outnumber the misses and it still teeters the line of the SHINee sound. It’s just not the grand comeback record expected of these beloved industry veterans. After a lengthy 13-year career at the top – a lifetime in K-pop – it seems like SHINee might have some soul-searching to do.

Details

  • Release date: February 22
  • Record label: SM Entertainment
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