Circle is the first full album by Onew, member of K-pop boy group SHINee, who debuted as a soloist in 2019 with the ballad-heavy Voice EP, and returned last spring with the vibrant synthpop of second mini-album Dice. After finding his footing in freshman and sophomore projects, Circle is an opportunity for Onew to settle more deeply into a signature sound, as well as take on the challenge of crafting a full-length album statement for the first time. (The latter is a particularly notable task in the world of K-pop, where mini-albums are the standard and tracklists are sometimes thrown together without much thought for cohesion.) The end result is a project that brings together dance-pop and ballads to create a sensitive pop album quietly brimming with life.
The record opens with title track “O (Circle),” a pensive tune just slightly untethered from reality that puts the voice of SHINee’s main vocalist front and center. With lyrics courtesy of Kim Eana, Onew muses about how life goes on, yet some things never seem to change: “The eternal cycle around the sun, the wind, the clouds, the rain, the sea / All the greetings and farewells have been the same.” There’s a choir, but it somehow works, upping the sense of scale without sounding too corny or spiritual. The overall vibe is of an existential coffeeshop — inviting and gently atmospheric, but where the barista might ask, “How much are you willing to pay?”
“O” begins the album with a feeling of discovering how much you don’t know. The B-sides, in terms of tone and tempo, follow behind in a wave that moves from gentle acoustic to distinctly upbeat tracks, before finally settling back into the mellow sonic space where the title track began. “Cough” is a classic singer-songwriter-esque midtempo track that blooms into a tender chorus; “Rain on Me” is a hushed, pleading ballad; “Caramel” is lightly jazzy, with a touch of mouth trumpet. From there, Circle takes off into a surprising groove: it’s a funny choice to open the record as if it’s on course to deliver an all-ballad affair, and then slyly bury the bops right at the point when listeners stop expecting them. The crisp, funky production of “Anywhere” and “Paradise” combines with Onew’s weightless vocals to fashion dancy cuts with distinct character, and “No Parachute” fittingly pairs the project’s lightest, simplest hook with lyrics about trying to escape everyday anxieties. The album then closes with the warm hug of “Walk with You” and the standard-ending piano ballad “Always.” The immediate impression is of a satisfying journey’s gentle end, yet the open question of the title track leaves you wanting to listen just one more time pretty much as soon as the end arrives.
Circle is yet another jewel in the crown of excellent SHINee solo projects, and it entirely lives up to the expectations of a K-pop mainstay’s first full-length outing. The music reflects on the styles Onew has previously visited, experiments with yet more new ones, and, while doing so, moves just the right amount forward: a comeback without opting for reinvention, a progression rather than a departure. Most importantly for a record of such origins, Circle stands on its own as a well-crafted and well-performed work with a strong point of view about the emotional potential of pop music. In the pre-chorus of its title track, Onew sings about “the joys of an unhurried sunrise” — a fitting sentiment to open an album that so understands patience and the importance of subtle, unique color.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.