Sunday, February 18, 2018

BTS ALBUM REVIEW: Love Yourself 承 Her

Because we need each other

We believe in one another

I know we're going to uncover

What's sleepin' in our soul

“Acquiesce” by Oasis

Because idol music is the synthesis of personality, emotion, narrative, visuals, and music, ignoring any of the pieces means you’re not seeing the work of art as a whole. An album is never just an album; a song is never just a song.

Case in point, I’ve been listening to BTS as pleasant background music since I first heard “DOPE” (쩔어) way back in 2015 but it wasn’t until I saw them perform the choreography for “DNA” on Music Station Super Live 2017 that I was really hooked. The way the music fed into the vivid, eye-poppingly bright costumes and the heartbeat choreography had me hitting replay over and over again on the MV on youtube… and then had me purchasing the mini-album that it was contained on: Love Yourself 承 Her.

And when I say purchase the album, I mean I specifically ordered the physical CD that came with the poster and photo book I wanted. (The “V” version for those curious.)

But it’s hasn’t been until now--a couple of months of binging on BTS related media later--that I feel capable of writing something about it beyond, “I think it’s really good.” What I hear now on Love Yourself 承 Her is a more confident, adult BTS who are figuring out what their unexpected success means and working on how to reach for the stars while keeping their feet firmly grounded in their “bapsae” roots. Here is the magic of idols at work--I’ve only been A.R.M.Y. (Adorable Representative MC for Youth) for a couple of months and yet I still feel so proud of these boys and how far they’ve come.

From my Japanese studies, I first read the “承” in the title as shou the first character in words such as “acceptance” and “acquiesce” (which is a banging Oasis track among other things) but apparently it’s going to be part of a broader theme using the four-character compound 起承轉結 (kishoutenketsu) which traditionally describes the progression of a four-line Chinese poem although in Japanese it is also used to describe the progression of an argument or criticism. The characters represent four phases: the starting point, laying the groundwork, a turning point, final conclusion.

If anything I think Love Yourself 承 Her is the result of all the growth and development, especially from the singing line--Jin, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. (The rap line being RM, Suga, and J-Hope.) The way idol music releases overlap between Korea and Japan for Korean artists means it’s hard to pinpoint exact start and stop points of different release cycles but if you look at the “Intro: xxx” songs for each release cycle, this is the first time one of BTS’s singing line has been given the responsibility of opening the entire cycle.

“Intro: Serendipity” is a huge change from previous “Intro: xxx” songs like J-Hope’s “Boy Meets Evil” (a dark rap about falling off the path of ambition) or RM’s frenetic “What Am I To You” (which is incredible to see on the 花樣年華 concert DVDs; he holds an entire stadium in the palm of his hand). “Serendipity” has nothing to prove. He’s a calico cat lazy and content, rolling around in bed on a Sunday morning.

I’m your calico cat, here to see you

Love me now

Touch me now

Just let me love you

Translation credit

The sparse production--by British songwriting team PKA Culture X Tones (Ray Djan and Ashton Foster)--combines electronic elements with acoustic ones. There’s a EDM-style drum machine but it’s balanced with a pretty acoustic guitar. But right in the center is Jimin’s voice, the reverb cushioning his delicate tenor rather than drowning it. A subtle kick drum, a heartbeat, on the one gives the only hint of a beat until the pre-chorus begins about 30 seconds into the song. It ends as quietly as it began, on a whispered “Let me love, let me love you.”

Jimin is a crooner, not a belter, and the production uses his emotive voice to its best effect, listening on headphones it sounds like he’s whispering directly into your ears. You can almost feel his breath, the warm air… He’s come a long way from the days when he it looked like he was more comfortable flashing his abs than singing.

Next is the song that hooked me: “DNA,” one of two singles off this album.

“DNA” picks up where “Intro: Serendipity” leaves off with the acoustic guitar sound. And a whistle. The beat is much, much lighter than previous BTS singles, as is the instrumentation. The rhythm track has a very, very light touch. The kick drum is much more natural sounding than I’ve heard on a BTS song before, without that added bass punch. The snare and hi-hat are present but in the background, drifting in on the off beats as color. And, most importantly, I think, there are tempo changes throughout the song that are used to keep the ear’s attention in a way I didn’t hear on previous BTS releases but that I very much enjoyed.

The vocals are divided nicely. V’s soulful baritone starts the song but all the singers get a juicy section, while the rap line has a lighter touch on this song. The percussive noise of the acoustic guitar track is what keeps us moving through the first verse and into the chorus, where the beat drops and we enter a synthesizer echo chamber. As the song heads into the second verse--which begins with Suga’s rap--the acoustic is gone and it’s the bass guitar which takes center stage. But as the other members join in, the instrumentation also begins to thicken. Synthesizer pads, noodly electric guitar riffs, and the return of the whistle all heightening the tension to the pre-chorus where the acoustic guitar returns and drives us through the chorus then everything cuts out as we throw back to V for the intro to the outro… a massive reprise of the chorus highlighting J-Hope that has the catchiest dance move in the entire song.

It’s a very, very good song.

My personal theory when I first heard “DNA” was that this track was meant for the Japanese market and I’m still pretty sure that’s the case, if for no other reason than it hooked me and my tastes in pop music have become extremely Japanese over the last 15 years or so. Japan likes EDM and rap okay but it has an overall preference for sweeter, not so bass heavy music. It’s no coincidence that the cocky “Mic Drop”--the other “single” from this release--was the song the West chose, while Japan has glomped onto “DNA”. (As I type this, “DNA” is still riding high in the Japanese Billboard Hot 100 while “Mic Drop” may as well not exist.)

Track 3 is “Best of Me,” the second contribution on the album from PKA Culture X Tones (Ray Djan and Ashton Foster) and is strongly reminiscent of their previous BTS song, 2016’s “Save Me” in structure. But unlike “Save Me” the song wasn’t produced by longtime BTS producer PDogg but by the Chainsmokers Andrew Taggart and… I think to the song’s detriment. I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m no fan of most American pop music for the very reasons that I find “Best of Me” rather bland in it’s recorded form and the song I’m most likely to skip when listening to Love Yourself.

What Taggart does here is create a Spotify-friendly, overly compressed audio meant to be played in the background while you do something else, song. He treats BTS as if they were pieces in an audio puzzle rather than the main feature that people are actually going to be plugging in their headphones and listening to. The entire track is swamped by this pedestrian synthesizer riff that hammers on and on and on and on even through the parts that should be quieter. There’s no room to breathe anywhere. It’s suffocating. Taggart may be a “brand name” producer but I never want to see his name anywhere near BTS again.

There’s a reason I listen to Asian pop instead of American pop and a large part of that has to do with wanting to avoid hacks like Andrew Taggart.

After the incessant droning of “Best of Me”, it’s such a relief to sink into Track 4, “보조개 (Dimple)”. Written by Matthew Tishler and Allison Kaplan from Laundromat Music (an Asian/Europop songwriting house), the song seems to have begun life as a demo song called “Illegal” which was then tweaked and arranged to showcase BTS’s vocal line. Between the lyrics about the dimple and production, this song feels like a fresh update of some 1950s doowop like the Penguins “Earth Angel” or the Flamingos “I Only Have For You” or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”.

It starts off with this fantastic little synthesizer noodle that sounds like a vintage Les Paul steel guitar riff over a pillowy cloud of sound. When the first verse begins, the rhythm kicks in with a laid back emphasis on the two and four--again a huge relief after the relentless four on the floor of “Best of Me”--the four singers trade off lines, voices intertwining around the edges where the reverb and multiple tracks overlap. The effect is really hypnotic.

There are two really amazing vocal hooks in the first section of the song. Jungkook’s leap to falsetto punctuating the ends of each line in the pre-chorus (and his falsetto backing track all through the song to be honest) and the way each singer hits that repeated, descending run on the word “illegal.” It gives me goosebumps of pleasure every time I hear the song.

And then comes the bridge. Oh my god, the bridge. Just V’s soulful baritone and this building tremolo organ patch that swells until it fills the entire landscape. The other singers swap in and we get this very classic rock and roll tom buildup and the tension is so big until it cannot be sustained one more measure and explodes with a Jungkook vocal run over a reprise of the chorus. As the song winds down, all four add vocal riffs to the backing track. V’s breathy run should have been illegal.

And this is the kind of vocal performance you can only pull from a mature idol group. Not only have they built up their confidence and their vocal skills, but they’ve been singing together for long enough that they’ve developed a really nice vocal blend. The personality and timbre of each of the vocal line’s voices really shines through here. The vocal line’s “Lost” was one of my favorite tracks from the last release cycle and this is such a huge step forward beyond it. I absolutely cannot wait to see this performed live.

Track 5 is “Pied Piper”, the song that has become an inside joke among fans because of the cheeky lyrics.

“Follow the sound of the pipe, follow this song

It’s a bit dangerous but I’m so sweet

I’m here to save you, I’m here to ruin you

You called me, see? I’m so sweet

Follow the sound of the pipe

I’m takin’ over you

I’m takin’ over you

Translation source

Going back to the theme of “laying the groundwork” or rather that the groundwork has been laid, more than anything this song seems to signal a BTS that has come to terms with the fact that they have been entrusted with the hearts and emotions of millions of women and girls around the globe. While they still clearly take the responsibility very seriously, the song is BTS saying they are also able to have a bit of fun. Not everything has to be a deep metaphor or have a positive message, sometimes all we need is pure pleasure.

(And besides is there anything more subversive than pure, unashamed female pleasure? Real feminism hours right here! *air horn*)

Like the rest of the songs in the first half of the album, “Pied Piper” is also very vocal line heavy with an incredible falsetto chorus from Jimin, Jungkook, and V. The instrumentation is fairly simple. A straightforward rhythm with an anticipated downbeat on the one, hand claps on two and four. Some chill strummy electric guitar, piano and synth pads, and a really sharp little phase-shifted synthesizer noodle standing in for the pied piper’s call… and echoed later by the vocal line in the chorus.

After the rapped verses, the rhythm drops out and all you hear is church organ as their sweet voices sing us to heaven. A heavenly choir of idols. It’s enough to send me to a state of pure bliss. (And after seeing the fan cam footage of Jimin’s bodyrolls and hearing the screams that accompanied them from the single live performance of “Pied Piper” so far, I only imagine what this song will be like live.)

Track six is RM’s speech from last year’s Billboard Music Awards and it leads into track seven, “MIC Drop”. I have very mixed feelings about these. I’m not a huge fan of “MIC Drop” and, quite frankly, I think it’s a pretty mediocre hype song--especially from a group who debuted specializing in hype songs. “MIC Drop” should have been the book end to the aggressive I’m-doing-my-own-shit-so-step-off “No More Dream” from 2013’s 2 Cool 4 Skool but the beat just sounds flabby in comparison to some of their early bangers.

Suga, at least, seems to understand the right amount of swag necessary for a boasting hype song in his verse but, yeah, there’s just something off about the whole mess. BTS isn’t the type of group to brag about trophies or awards and coming directly after RM’s humble acceptance speech gives the song an even odder dissonance. To be honest, the song reads to me as an uncomfortable attempt to hang a lampshade on a type of success that they find almost embarrassing. Is success in collecting trophies and building up their bank accounts? Do they find it embarrassing that this is how success has been defined for them? Not the hearts and minds they reached in “Pied Piper” but the bag full of trophies from “MIC Drop”?

But, again, this is where we need to take the complete idol music package into account and J-Hope’s energetic dancing in the performances of “MIC Drop” is just about enough to rescue the song… at least performed live. Musically speaking, it’s a dud. (Look, there’s a reason Steve Aoki isn’t a household name, okay?)

Track 8 though, my friends. Track 8. Now this is a song.

“고민보다 Go” (Gominbona Go) is an utterly delicious piece of pop nihilism. Written in the tropical house style that took over K-Pop in the summer of 2017 it really is a proper companion to some of those early don’t-give-a-fuck bangers. There’s no way that the guys in BTS still have to worry about what’s in their bank accounts but this office lady noona identifies pretty hard with the lyrics.

Worked hard to get my pay

Gonna spend it all on my stomach

Pinching pennies to spend it all on wasting it

Leave me be, even if I overspend

Even if I break apart my savings tomorrow

Like a crazy guy

Translation credit

BTS: Anti-capital hoarding; pro-the poor deserve pleasure as much as the rich.

Welcome, comrades.

The song itself is anchored with this ridiculous off-kilter calypso beat with a weird little pied piper-like wooden flute sound and the choreography is just gloriously bouncy and stupid, even incorporating the stupid backpack kid dance move. Vocally it’s a good mix of rap line and vocal line with some really expressive line deliveries from everybody. Some syllables are hit percussively, some are slurred, some are squealed out. Really great stuff all around. There’s always something different to listen for ending that outro! It’s 45 seconds of a building, building frenzy with the repeated Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go, Gominbona Go… when it ends abruptly, it immediately makes me want to hit “repeat.”

Track 9, “Outro: Her”, is our rap line song. I read it as a love song for A.R.M.Y. and our complicated relationship with our idols. They love us, they hate us, they love us again. We support them, we tear them down, and we pick them back up again.

As Suga says in his verse, “To become the person who loves you, to become the guy who loves you, I quit what I used to love.” (Translation credit)

The emotional ties between us are complicated but conveyed so well by all three of them. It says a lot about the type of idols they are that they’ve put so much thought into the relationship.

Suga, who produced the song, went for a breezy Fugees-style R&B vibe. The drums sound nice and fresh and there’s a nice little organ patch and a guitar with a wah pedal. It’s really quite beautiful. The honest nature of the lyrics are well served by his choice. There’s something about that Fugee-style sound that hits right at the heart. Suga has good taste.

Finally, since I bought the physical album, I got bonus tracks 10 and 11.

Track 10 is a secret talk--which I have to rely on a translation of until I finish teaching myself Korean--but they seem to discuss the same sorts of things I find so fascinating about idol life. What is it that ties us together? How do you stay true to yourself while wearing clothes you hate and too much makeup? What do they owe us? What do we owe them in return?

(Have I mentioned how much I love BTS? The idol philosopher's idol group...)

And track 11 is a real classic BTS-style moody ballad: “바다” (Bada, the sea). It follows songs like “I Need U” or “Tomorrow”. Produced by J-Hope (!) and Suga, the song begins with the sound of waves lapping on the shore, replaced by the soft background vocals from the vocal line, a shimmering shaker, and a jangly Britpop electric guitar loop that anchors the song.

Just like the sea we heard at the beginning, the song builds in waves. A slow build through the verses into the pre-chorus that sends everything crashing before building up even bigger, crashing even bigger, and finally, disappearing…

“Is this the sea or the desert? Is this hope or despair,” asks J-Hope. His verses are particularly frantic but all three rappers are distraught. Like “Outro: Her”, the lyrics appear to speak to the conflict of success. What happens when you reach the top only to find that there’s nothing there. The sweet tones of the verses appear almost like a balm. “Where’s there’s hope there’s trials. Where there is hope you know you know you know yeah yeah”

In a way, it’s something we all have to deal with. What happens when you get married and find out there’s no happily ever after? When you have a kid and it doesn’t fill the hole in your life? When you get the job you wanted? When your team wins the championship? When you get into the college you wanted but your life is still fucked up?

That’s “바다”. V ends the song, ends the album, with his soulful baritone. “We have to despair, for all of those trials.” (Translation credit for all the Bada quotes. I really need to learn Korean.)

Overall, I really love this mini-album. It’s a bit of a departure from previous work but not so much that can’t see where they were coming from. The vocal line’s increased presence, the rap line getting moody, the willingness to toe the line at what is acceptable in mainstream pop. If this is the foundation--the 承--I cannot wait to hear that turning point. Keep fighting, BTS! Keep finding new challenges and new mountains to scale. Teach yourselves Japanese; teach yourselves English; keep fighting! (And V, for the love of God, please record an album of smoky-voiced jazz standards. Please.)

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I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

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