Face the Sun is a progression for Seventeen, an altogether grander, more cohesive record that proves a wonderful addition to their stellar discography.
Thirteen-member boy group Seventeen (don’t worry about it) debuted on the K-pop scene in 2015 with a progression of singles that brimmed with youthful optimism, earnest melodies, and unstoppable energy. In the years following, they’ve continued to push their sound into new areas while remaining true to the sense of sincerity that distinguishes their work. Successfully juggling thirteen voices within a single song can be a Herculean task, but time and again Seventeen has made it work, aided by their impressive vocal diversity and years of experience managing their own creative direction. (In particular, member Woozi has co-written almost every one of their songs since the group’s first EP.)
Face the Sun is Seventeen’s first full-length album in two and a half years (the time in between being filled by shorter mini-albums) and was released one day after their seven-year debut anniversary. The standard K-pop idol contract is seven years long, so this anniversary is often a time when groups disband or lose members as they go through contract renewals, but all thirteen members of Seventeen renewed their contracts ten months ahead of schedule in 2021. Rather than marking the closing of a chapter, Face the Sun is bursting with renewed self-assurance, fresh ideas, and the sense that Seventeen isn’t even close to being done.
The bad news first: “Hot,” Face the Sun’s “title track” — i.e. its big release-day single — is also the album’s worst song by a long shot. Seventeen has done dark concepts before and made them stand out (the melancholy of “Fear,” the minimalism of “Getting Closer”), but there’s nothing particularly distinctive about “Hot.” The vocals and melodies, which usually elevate a Seventeen title track to the next level, have no space to breathe, and the production sounds like a dozen other generic boy group singles that try to look cool and macho and make a lot of noise without having much to say beneath the surface. “Hot” isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t feel much like Seventeen at all.
Now, onto the good news: the b-sides on Face the Sun are fantastic. The first, “Don Quixote,” whose production is blissfully vocal-forward, has a sense of grandeur that will wipe any memory of “Hot” from your mind within the first few seconds. “I just wanna feel the vibes” may look bad as a hook on paper, but its melody is so undeniable that by the end of the first chorus, it’ll have you thinking that hey, maybe this Don Quixote guy was onto something after all. “March” is a rolling pop-rock track begging to be shouted back by a crowd; “Bout You” and English-language single “Darling” are bouncy, lighthearted pop cuts that show Seventeen have not lost touch with the brightness of their earlier work.
Most Seventeen albums have a handful of tracks sung by smaller sub-units within the group (the vocal, hip-hop, and performance teams). Face the Sun consists entirely of full-group tracks, but it’s easy to point out what the unit songs would have been. “Domino,” for instance, is a classic performance unit track expanded to make room for everyone. Its groovy production is packed with crisp synth squiggles, snappy melodies, flourishes of electric guitar, piano, and techno, silky pre-choruses, a tasteful rap verse, and an anti-drop that may cause you to react audibly. Yet even though that description sounds very kitchen-sink, the production and mixing make such clever use of negative space that the song feels somehow minimalist despite pulsing with barely-contained energy. In another world, “If You Leave Me” would have belonged to the vocal unit, but as realized here it’s a lovely piano-and-vocal ballad that allows all thirteen members’ voices to shine. And “Ash” is an obvious hip-hop team effort: drenched in defamiliarizing autotune and ominous melodies, it’s similar to “Don Quixote” in its feeling of epic-fantasy grandeur, but this time more conflicted rather than triumphant. (Add it to the playlist for your Mistborn fanfic.) The lyrical themes of phoenix-esque rebirth and self-determination of identity that run through “Ash” make it a fitting closing track.
But the heart of Face the Sun isn’t “Ash” or “Hot” or any of the previously mentioned b-sides. Halfway through the tracklist sits “Shadow,” one of the best and most moving songs Seventeen has ever released. Its shuffling verses, which invoke UK garage, build up to a chorus that’s heartfelt melody explodes out of an acoustic anti-drop to vault straight over the language barrier. The members sing tenderly about trying to escape their shadows by hiding in a place without light, but the choruses carry them to the realization that our shadows are an inseparable part of us. Standing in the light may reveal our fears and flaws, but it also represents happiness: even if the heat of the sun hurts at first, accepting ourselves means understanding every part of who we are. The message is equally applicable to listeners on a personal level as it is to the members of Seventeen grappling with how to live under the spotlight.
At turns playful and serious, exploring both familiar and brand new musical frontiers, acknowledging their worries as artists but asserting that they’re here to stay for years to come, Face the Sun is a wonderful addition to Seventeen’s discography. Everywhere we go, our shadows follow: this album stands between the light and dark to establish itself as some of their best work yet.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 1.