Shinhwa - "THE RETURN"

The (other, older) gods are back, and I don't think we mere mortals are ready, but in true god fashion, they don't care.

Not that I'm complaining, because I had such a hard time staying sane while listening to it. The thought of them finally coming back, paired with the gorgeous songs, is a lethal combination. But more than anything, this album proves something that a lot of acts completely forget. If you're really a good musician/performer and you really know what you're doing, it doesn't matter if you're in 2000 or 2012, you will still be good, and you will still sound like yourself.

There are two sides to "THE RETURN", as this is Shinhwa in 2012. The "now" aspect is very clear -- they make use of a lot of modern technology, trendy chord progressions and sophisticated vocal treatment -- but the Shinhwa aspect is just as clear, there is no denying that this is a Shinhwa album. There's a certain regality to the way they went about producing and executing the album, and from the first song all the way down to the last, regardless of everything else, it finds a way to sound superior.

"THE RETURN" isn't some haphazardly album thrown together just for the sake of a reunion, complete with "new versions" of old hits in a desperate attempt to relive the past (none of that on this album!), it's sure of what it is, and what it has to be. They made all the right decisions with the direction, the packaging, and the all-important lead single. "Venus" is not the only good song on the album, but it most definitely isn't horrible. But it's not only in what songs were put in, it's also in how they were put in, and how going through the entire album in one sweep is so natural.

Put the musicality, the good decisions and the crisp production together and you get the closest thing to perfection. Sorry Big Bang, "ALIVE" was great, but "THE RETURN" is now the best release of the year.

But they don't completely forget the fact that fans will be crying over this album, and so adding a few tear-jerking songs in between all that regality won't hurt, right? Right. Because that's exactly what "On The Road" is. We're greeted with soft drum rolls laced with a pretty piano line and some cymbals here and there, before a very low-key verse that just spirals into this tear-jerkingly stunning chorus, that's light enough to match the song, but intense enough to hear over fangirl sobs. It's simple, and we don't get any of those fancy instruments yet, but it's simplicity makes you curious -- what's the rest of the album going to sound like?

Amazing, I believe, because they just keep it coming with the brilliance. "Hurts" is just that much darker than "On The Road", with that whole late '90s/early 2000's R&B thing going on, and their vocals are really something, but once you get to the chorus, it's literally a chorus of all their voices -- no jumping through hoops and fire needed, that's the explosion. "Hurts" is the epitome of effortless -- it has so much conviction, but it's also very natural.

It turns out that those two tracks were just the beginning, and a sort of "flashback" musically, because the next two songs are nothing but current. They're like hybrids of everyone from BEAST to EXO to U-Kiss and even that new NU'EST song -- it's trendy, upbeat, and fresh. To be honest with you, so many things could have gone wrong with the two songs, they could've ended up sounding cheap, the melodies could've gotten lost under all the autotune, but again, the difference is that this is Shinhwa we're talking about, they know exactly what they're doing -- these new groups don't hold a candle to Shinhwa, and everyone knows that. It's like the difference between cheap chocolate and the really good kind. Essentially they're both chocolate and they have almost the same ingredients, but it's in the quality of the ingredients and how they were put together that the two kinds differ.

Unlike other similar songs, what "Venus" has is musicality -- you can tell that the composer really put effort into it. The dynamics work seamlessly and effortlessly with each other, literally gliding from verse to chorus to middle-8, the verses are stunning, but they don't hit you over the head, the bridge builds-up in the smoothest possible way, and while half of the chorus monotonous, they actually picked the right note to sing this time around. The song literally sounds like eggs on a well-oiled pan, and how they slide off once cooked, and taste heavenly.

Continuing with the trendy suite of "THE RETURN", "Red Carpet" is not as epic as "Venus", but it's an amazing song in it's own right. I'm honestly having such a hard time believing that the guys singing this are in their 30's, but then I remember whose album this is. The main thing to pay attention to on "Red Carpet" is the presence of a melody, and how the vocals deliver it in relation to the rest of the song. If SHINee sang this it would sound flimsy, and if other bands sang it they'd sound cheap -- what Shinhwa have is maturity with the right mix of youth, and not the other way around.

And we're back to boyband bootcamp with "Move With Me". It's SO early 2000's k-pop, ala-early BoA, S.E.S., a bit of Rain here and there, and Shinhwa of course. Rather than saying it has conviction, the better word to describe "Move With Me" would be that it has spunk. The drum line, the short and sharp guitar parts, the harmonies all throughout, the chord progressions they used, and everything all together equals a package that's funky, slightly mischievous, but still light and modern.

"Let It Go" is in the vain of "Insomnia"-era Craig David during the verses, with the sharp, but slightly soggy/full beats and that eerie piano line. You think it's going to be like that for the entire song and just explode into a loud chorus, but when the chorus actually arrives this guitar part just swoops in out of nowhere, steering the song away from what you originally thought it was going to be, and you're left speechless. It's the guitar part that gives the song the conviction, but it's the vocals that give it groove. Everything rolled together is really a feast to your ears. I don't know if you guys have tasted it, but "Let It Go" reminds me of those Marks&Spencer Dark Chocolate Jaffa cakes. When you bite in to it all you taste is the chocolate, but chew it a bit more and BAM this amazing orange jam comes out of nowhere and takes over your mouth.

I was actually pretty iffy about "Stay", because it starts off like some novelty song, and pretty much keeps at it throughout, with the cheap synths and novelty song-worthy, melody executed with light vocals and thrown together with rather flimsy production. The same goes for "Welcome", it sounds like a cross between "Bonamana" with thin production and something Haha would rap/"sing" to, what with the "conga" instrumental. I guess the redeeming factor of the two songs is that they're not pretentious. They're not cheap songs masquerading as something sophisticated -- they're cheap songs that sound like cheap songs. They are what they are, and they're very consistent in that.

I never really understood K-Pop's fixation with all things retro (and even J-Pop, if you count DBSK's "Choosey Lover"), but it's being done, so I really can't do anything about it. "Be My Love" doesn't sound cheap like the previous two songs, but it is pretty cheesy. Like, cringe-worthy cheesy. I can imagine them in those all-silver/metallic blue (ala-Westlife's "What Makes A Man")/OR GOLD suits doing repetitive sways and snaps, complete with spirit fingers at the "youuuuuu" parts. Yeah.

"Re-Love" is epic and stunning and brilliant and everything rolled in. Swoon-worthy harmonies throughout a stunning melody, a bass line you feel instead of feel underneath the epicly gorgeous, but pretty basic, instrumental -- it's the mandatory boyband slow song done flawlessly. This plays up the band part of boyband, with all the gorgeous harmonies and the high note parades, and this is one of the main reasons why fangirls start dropping like flies. That pause towards the end killed me, and the harmony right after killed me again.

We start with epic, go through a couple of different songs, and we're back to epicly gorgeous with "Breathin'". Putting aside the fact that it sounds like "breeding" instead of "breathing" (I bet you won't be able to unhear it anymore after this LOL), the best way to describe it would be that it's glorious. Not gorgeous, not stunning -- glorious. Glorious in the pop sense, of course, but glorious nonetheless. The beautiful melody, the harmonies and background vocals, the strings in the background that literally lift the song up to the heavens, and the percussion that makes sure it's a smooth ride -- glorious.

My favorite: "Venus" and "Breathin'" are tied
Song(s) I'd listen to again: "On The Road", "Re-Love", "Let It Go", "Red Carpet", "Hurts"
My least favorite: it's between "Welcome" and "Be My Love"
Last words: Best release of the year so far.
The final verdict: 5/5

12 comments:

  1. Love this in depth review and you solidified all that I thought when I listen to the album.

    I'm glad they come back with such quality and solid album

    Hurts, Venus & Breathin'(instant hook on the 1st listen) are my top 3 :)

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  2. " My favorite: "Venus" and "Breathin'" are tied"

    me too! those 2 are my favorite plus hurts.

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  3. thank you for this detail review! =)

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  4. Hope you don't mind me adding a link to purchase the album
    Other than Soribada, it's now available on iTunes ^^
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-return/id513171595

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  5. great review, I am totally in love with this album. I purchased the CD and since I can't wait for the CD to arrive i decided to buy the album on iTunes as well, it's crazy but it's worth it!

    my favorites are: On The Road, Venus and Let It Go.

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  6. I genuinely enjoyed this release and am going batshit crazy fangirling over them, but I have to say most of this album is just passable. Venus and On the Road are stand out tracks though and I totally appreciate and respect that they have been able to maintain the friendship and chemistry for so long to come back with this release. Yay for sexy men!!! Kpop needs more of you!

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  7. Honestly, I first thought that Venus sounds too "western" for my taste, I mean, it was really catchy, but I want kpop to sound like kpop, not like an american production (which this song partially is, right?). But it grew on me and I think I can call myself a Shinhwa fan now.

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  8. I love this album so much and I'm so glad people have enjoyed this album as much as I did. One of the few albums I own where I love every song. I read another review that criticized the album for being haphazardly put together with songs that didn't match together and Shinhwa banking their success on their past. After listening to the album, and with a massive bias as Shinhwa is my favourite boyband of ALL TIME, I completely disagree with that person's review. I love this album and every single song and I want to own a CD player just so I can play the album in the order that it is put in every single day. There are definitely some songs I love more than others but every single song has something in it that just makes me want to replay the whole album just to get to it again. I never want to skip a single song.

    What I thought with this album was it is Shinhwa's sound for 2012 but with shoutouts to their past. I thought there was a lot of growth in their music and it wasn't just a rehash of what they used to do. I'm guessing from some reactions that some fans wanted ballads and old school Kpop music in this album but I was actually really glad Shinhwa tried new things as well because I've grown and changed with my music taste (if I wanted to listen to old school Kpop I'll just listen to their older music) and I feel like this album really matches with what I like listening to now BUT more importantly, has that difficult to define but definitely there Shinhwa sound that I can always trust for me to love.

    Its this thing I really respect about them. I feel like they've managed to juggle that awkward balance that musicians who have been around for longer struggle with, that balance where you want to reach out to new fans but also please their old fans. And this old fan is way way pleased!

    On a different note, I find it really interesting this comment that a lot of people make on new songs from artists who have been around for awhile (especially on youtube), where they say, 'I wish 'blah blah blah' released type of music again. This song is SO much better than what they have now.' The thing is the music industry changes and musicians have to grow. If they didn't, they would get criticized for rehashing old stuff. Sure I understand if you don't like an artist's new stuff but this isn't justification for them to keep releasing the same type of thing over and over again. The things I used to listen to and what I listen to now have changed and I don't know whether I'm really lucky or Shinhwa have really targeted the market well but their latest release has just hit all the right spots for me.

    Thank you so much for your review! Your blog is great and I love how you have opinions which you articulate well!

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  9. Thank you so much for this review! I don't think a lot of young kpop fans are aware of how good Shinhwa is. To me they are just incomparable to the younger groups.
    During the absence of Shinhwa, I have been into a lot of kpop groups mainly because of variety shows and their good looks. It was never really their musicality that drew me to them. This is why Shinhwa is a legend. They give you enjoyable variety shows but when it comes to their music they are damn serious about it. I never listen to whole albums of other kpop groups.

    With Shinhwa's albums, you just know how much thought and experience they put into their music. Most of the kpop albums I've listened to are big disappointments. They give you about 10 tracks but almost all of the time there are only 3 good tracks.

    I hope Shinhwa gets recognized for their talent and hardwork so that they will retire from the industry not as has-beens but true legends of korean music.

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  10. I wouldn't call myself an overt kpop fan, I like BigBang and the occasional Shinee song, but I'm far from an expert. I bought Alive and Prepix from iTunes.

    That said, once I came across these guys, I can't even express how amazed I am at their talent. So much so I actually hunted down a reputable store in S.Korea to buy the CD, paying well over double with shipping, of what I would normally pay for a CD.

    I've found myself hunting online for their subbed shows, simply because they seem so genuine, which seems like a rare trait in the music industry as a whole sometimes. I've caught myself more then once telling my American friends "No really, you have to hear these guys, they're amazing!"

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  11. what i miss from shinhwa a lot is their variety shows. and now my eyes hurt from watching their interviews/variety gigs/etc too much, even digging the old ones too xD honestly, i didn't feel very passionate about their music though their stage performances are always pleasant to watch (and! the! backroom! interviews! too! xD). imo, this album isn't that exciting too much, venus is addictive but it's kinda boring at some points. it's quiet standard for the current kpop releases. the only album from shinhwa i'd recommend to everyone is their 7th album. it sounds really experimental, they tried various songs, made creative mvs, and all. if you're interested in shinhwa's music (not just the 14 years legend or their variety talents), imo, you really have to listen their 7th album. :)

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  12. My favourite has to be Stay! honestly how could one not enjoy listening to it. Plus the meaning of the lyrics are very funny. look it up.

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