TWICE’s latest offers easy enough pop listening, but is unambitious on the whole and too littered with throwaway tracks to present a compelling whole.
Nine-member girl group Twice is one of the most successful K-pop ensembles working today. Managed by JYP Entertainment, they hit it big with the Korean public within the first year of their 2015 debut, and they’ve been churning out regular comebacks helmed by sweet, charming pop songs about love ever since. But it’s only within the last few years that Twice has started to transform into genuine album artists. Their promoted title tracks still lean toward easy-listening synthpop and lighthearted romantic concepts, but the breadth of their b-sides has expanded far beyond their signature sound. Highlights from their 2019-2021 EPs include pulsing dance-pop, salacious piano-house, blaring brass sections, and “Say So”-inspired funk, but the peak of their discography is by far the group’s second full-length album, Eyes Wide Open, released last October. Eyes Wide Open was an impressive, adventurous project and a shining example of what a K-pop album can be: each one of its thirteen tracks took on a totally different musical style (Dance-pop about insomnia! Filthy electronic drop! City pop! Cheerleader anthem!), and yet the end result felt cohesive, compelling, and like a huge step forward in the evolution of Twice’s artistic identity. It’s an album that never should have worked, but the fact that it did made it one of the best K-pop projects of 2020. Their third full-length, then — Formula of Love: O+T=<3, released this November — had a tough act to follow, and the results are mixed.
In a vacuum, Formula of Love is a perfectly good project. Twice are not in the business of putting out outright bad or thoughtless songs, even at the rapid release pace that K-pop comebacks demand: you could put this album on shuffle and enjoy whatever comes on (with maybe one exception). What makes it slightly disappointing is the distinct lack of variety on offer. Twice’s first fully English-language single, “The Feels,” was released at the start of October, and it’s fantastic — the lyrics are silly, but the melodic hooks are undeniable, the performances are fun, and the production is such glittering, energetic dance-pop that it’s impossible to resist. It’s one of Twice’s best singles in years. But then you listen through the first half a dozen tracks on Formula of Love, and you’re hit with a wall of similar dance-pop production that sounds both less surprising and less sonically sophisticated than “The Feels,” and the thrill starts to fade.
The most interesting b-sides on Formula are the ones that do try new things: “Espresso” is bassy, bouncy electro-pop, “Cactus” is a power ballad, and “Last Waltz” is gothic R&B (maybe?) with a pre-chorus that shifts into 3/4 time. A few of the experiments are more half-hearted: jazzy ballad “Rewind” is pretty but feels like a less successful version of Eyes Wide Open standout “Handle It,” and the less said about embarrassing “Lalisa” imitator “Hello,” the better. This album is also the first time that Twice has released subunit songs, with three of the tracks featuring just three members each, but they are none of the best songs and mostly sound like a way to get use out of leftover demos.
With repeated listens, the flood of dance-pop does begin to sort itself into standouts — “Fall in Love Again” deserves more of a spotlight than the tracklist gives it, and “Cruel” is an excellent showcase of the subtlety that the Twice members can bring as vocalists. But Formula is far less exciting than Eyes Wide Open, or even their summer 2021 EP Taste of Love, and it’s almost insulting how clearly JYP Entertainment has chosen to coast on this release and let Twice’s sound stagnate. The album’s release day single, “Scientist,” is so middle-of-the-road that it’s taken four paragraphs to even be worth mentioning: yes, it’s cute and hooky and pleasant in the moment, but the production is so devoid of sonic personality that it takes half a dozen listens to even begin to distinguish itself as a grower, which is not the way a single should be (especially not when it’s following in the footsteps of multiple other underwhelming recent title tracks from Twice). But it makes sense — it’s only been a year since their last full-length Korean album, and the group has released over a dozen songs as part of other projects since then. The JYP vaults are probably close to empty. It’s possible that the only reason this comeback was even a full album, rather than an EP, was because the company solicited a wide range of dance-pop demos as contenders to be their first English single, and, after “The Feels” was released, still had enough strong runner-ups remaining to fill out the rest of an album. That’s only speculation, but comparing the crisp production and mixing of “The Feels” to most of the other b-sides, which are noticeably less technically sharp, certainly makes you wonder. Formula of Love is full of individually enjoyable songs, but the project lacks the ambition it needs to be a truly compelling whole — Twice have already proved themselves capable of so much more.
Published as part of Album Roundup — November 2021 | Part 2.