Last year, InRO reviewed K-pop boy group Seventeen’s Face the Sun, their fourth full-length album and one of the best projects of their career. Face the Sun commemorated Seventeen’s seventh anniversary with music that alternately looked back to classic SVT sounds and successfully tried out new styles, all tied up in themes of learning to accept one’s flaws, trust in resiliency, and a vow to climb even higher. Seventeen had already been one of the most successful currently active K-pop groups for years, but Face the Sun exploded their popularity even further.
New mini album FML arrives, then, with intense hype: it’s their first full-fledged group comeback in almost a year. The EP’s already set K-pop sales records, moving four million units in the first week, and lead single “Super” telegraphs a similar feeling of unbeatable power — a bold ode to the group’s teamwork, with one of their hardest choreos ever and a huge music video set with more backup dancers than anyone could know what to do with. So the comeback has the numbers, the hype, and Seventeen’s history of putting out excellent and distinctive self-produced music to back it up. Unfortunately, “Super” frankly sounds like ass.
Too many K-pop boy groups right now are obsessed with coming off as really cool. In comparison to today’s wonderfully diverse girl group market, most of the relevant boy groups of the past few years have, at one point or another, defaulted to doing tiring choreos over sweeping, shouty electronic or hip-hop beats and expecting the audience to be impressed like they haven’t seen it dozens of times before. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this sound; there’s just so much of it at the moment, and diminishing returns kick in very quickly when everyone is trying to be the loudest person in the room. These kinds of songs need something more to stand out: an uplifting emotional core, a gleefully weird and distended arrangement, or a precise understanding of sound design and empty space. Most attempts end up as generic, “no feeling, just noise” efforts from groups that might be better suited to a completely different style, but lack fresh creative direction.
Seventeen is one of the K-pop groups that has best avoided the trap of confusing “cool” for “good.” (A boy band, after all, is an inherently unserious construct.) Their songs are unafraid to be happy, goofy, pretty, or even cheesy, often focusing on the beauty of small moments rather than the impossibly grand, and their music is largely vocal- and melody-forward, emphasizing the diversity in their members’ voices instead of relying only on the production to carry them. The group’s most recent subunit release — trio Booseoksoon’s “Fighting,” from February — is a gloriously corny, yet genuinely uplifting, track that reminded us that this K-pop shit is supposed to be fun.
Only a year ago, on “Hot,” Seventeen sang, “No need to imitate” — and yet the lasting impression left by FML’s lead single is exactly that: an uninspired, unflattering, and depressingly derivative imitation of multiple other groups. There are more BTS, Ateez, and Stray Kids in “Super” than there is Seventeen, which is bizarre for a group that writes their own music and has always been led by strength of character. Maybe there’s a little promise in the pulsing rush of the pre-chorus, but every single molecule of air gets sucked out of the song when the chorus of “Super” hits, first the awkward plucked anti-drop using the Korean traditional instrument of the kayageum and then the sudden surge into the pushy — and resoundingly boring — Shouty Bits. The production has been hydraulic-pressed into a generic mass of sound, but the vocal performances lack any nuance to make up for it, with only one or two melodies that go anywhere interesting.
In truth, “Hot” already pushed the limits of what sounded like Seventeen versus what just sounded like 4th-generation boy group posturing, but that song found its footing by still being dynamic and a little playful. The chorus of “Super” may end with theoretically sentimental shouts of “I love my team, I love my crew,” but nothing about it sounds welcoming, just confusingly aggressive. And when Woozi shouts “Ping, and out comes fire” and the outro devolves into a Blackpink-style mess of near-tuneless chants, it honestly feels embarrassing for everyone involved. Seventeen’s music has never felt emptier, nor the group less deserving of their “biggest act in K-pop” title than on “Super.”
Although this baffling misfire of a lead single draws most of the attention (including this review’s), there are other tracks on FML. “F*ck My Life” (with canonical asterisk) was promoted as a second single, though it’s not clear why; it may not be as sonically offensive as “Super,” but it’s just as devoid of any distinct style. Seventeen sing about losing their way and needing to fight for their life over a bland, shuffling, midtempo beat that has all the conviction of the “before” section of a medication commercial — technically on point thematically, but neither toned-down and hopeless enough to evoke strong emotions nor dynamic enough to be enjoyable on musical merit alone. Hip-hop subunit track “Fire” is a standard, cringy K-pop attempt at rap and needs no further discussion.
The songs that are good on FML, blessedly, are really good — the back half of the EP especially plays to the group’s signature vocal and melodic strengths. “Dust” is sentimental, synthy, and an excellent entry in the “music happy, lyrics sad” genre — so a classic Seventeen song. Each of the five vocal unit members move from featherlight falsettos to tender lower register to sudden high-note leaps, as they confess they can’t forget about the person they loved. The melody climbs and falls and gallops forward as if it’ll finally reach a place of forgetting, but in the end, their honesty only engraves the memories deeper (“No matter how much I throw away the memories… They return back like dust”).
Performance unit song “I Don’t Understand But I Love You” is genuinely exciting and fresh, most comparable to the same unit’s otherworldly 2017 track, “Lilili Yabbay.” “Understand” is a hazy rock song whose vocals crackle with as much energy as the languid guitar riff, the members’ alternately deep and light timbres curling intently around the production to express… probably a little too much suggestion of thirst for a song that might be dedicated to fans? But the atmosphere is striking and gets the very best out of their voices, and there’s something about the way Hoshi and Minghao slide into the chorus that sticks with you long after the song ends.
Finally, the mini closes with full-group track “April Shower,” as if to wash away the memories of the dire first half with a soft, dancey, and optimistic song that is quintessentially Seventeen. The narrative is similar to “F*ck My Life” in its themes of fighting through struggles and showers by holding onto the promise of renewal, but this time the synthy production is crisp and layered, and the topline feels much more alive. “When the April shower of late spring falls down / Put the umbrella away and walk in the rain,” goes the chorus. That image in isolation could come off as cliche, but the cascade of vocal and instrumental melodies that sell it leave no room to doubt the group’s conviction, and their sincere performances pair with a spinning, weightless drop to evoke the gently transformative power of spring rain. This song gets all the ideas of nuance, balance, and catharsis right (which “Super” got entirely wrong) in a way that only Seventeen can. “Flow down more right now,” they sing to the cleansing rain — let’s hope that, in their next era, they more fully embrace what’s always made their music so special.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 19.