While everyone this side of the Atlantic held off on their release to avoid competition with Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, nine-member K-pop girl group TWICE continued widely outpacing many of their peers when it comes to the sheer volume of music released and dropped their third album in just over a year. While I’ve long believed that the strength, danceable rhythms and charismatic vocals of TWICE’s singles over the years have elevated them to a class of their own amongst K-pop groups, their deeper cuts have often fallen back into more generic territory. Their latest project reverses that, as the heavily promoted tracks actually end up being some of the weaker ones here alongside a handful of expectedly catchy pop tunes. Their sound has diverted a bit from the earlier days, moving away from their distinctively jubilant and adorable sound closer to the more aggressive and unflappable BLACKPINK formulas, but there’s still clearly some great pop minds working away behind the scenes here.
On the other hand, the biggest name that worked on the project is UK pop star Anne-Marie, who put out one of the year’s most derivative pop albums and co-wrote lead single and opening track “SCIENTIST.” It’s the kind of track you feel like you should love, a driving dance-pop track with a strong thematic thread and some solid, soaring vocal work on the chorus, but it doesn’t connect for whatever reason – there’s something about the melodies used here that feel all too familiar. The track feels a little bit like TWICE on autopilot, as the marketing team chose the safest option for their comeback single. Although it can often make K-pop groups sound awkward and out of their element, the two fully-English tracks actually manage to be two of the best on the album. “MOONLIGHT” has a great example the genre’s traditional mashing together of unexpected sounds that can make it so unique and invigorating. It mostly serves as their answer to the modern nu-disco fever, but it brings aboard echoing tribal drums, some new jack swing rhythm, a funk bassline and some twinkly 90s synthpop magic – it feels like Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” and Toto’s “Africa” fused into one song. It’s not afraid to mix up the structure either. Certain bits extend when you don’t expect them to, matching the fun-loving, frivolous nature of the lyrics. It’s nice to hear some of the singers’ hypnotic lower ranges as well. “ICON” has a bit of a reggae flair, and it’s the most braggadocio-driven track here with a couple bars that are ready to be shouted by crowds live. With a lot of legacy talk and shots at their doubters, the huge percussion hits when they sneer “damn, I got it, I’m iconic” on the chorus are undeniably fun.
The tracks “CRUEL” and “REAL YOU” continue to hop on current dance-pop trends, but with differing degrees of success. “CRUEL” leaves a little less room for experimentation. It feels like it could have been a Future Nostalgia leftover, coasting on a big dancefloor-ready synthbass beat and violins, but the melody in the verses feels pretty static and the chorus follows one of my least favourite pop strategies – the energy actually drops as the instrumental becomes muted, when it easily could have kicked into a higher gear to better accommodate the singers sounding pretty fantastic on some higher notes. “REAL YOU” kicks up the musicality with a syncopated guitar bit keeping things interesting, plus an infusion of trap beats and little instrumental shifts to highlight the members’ strengths, morphing to a more percussion-focused section during a brief rap break, for example. “F.I.L.A (Fall In Love Again)” keeps the high-tempo nu-disco going, but again feels too much like another trend-hopping Western artist’s cutting-room floor material looking to get repurposed. “LAST WALTZ” introduces a new section of the album with one of the more experimental and risky tracks here, including some a cappella-style breakdowns where each singer adds a new note and a minimalistic, eerie feeling as the group adds some dramatic gravitas to their vocals, clinging desperately to a fleeting romance.
The track “ESPRESSO” is the album’s strongest and kicks off an incredible three-track run as the project shifts to its second half. The aggressive and whiplash-inducing dance-pop instrumental honestly brings to mind some of the most fun elements of early 2010s EDM and dubstep, but never feels dated with TWICE’s performance on top reinvigorating the style by being just as chaotic and dynamic as the shifting instrumental underneath. The pendulum quickly swings between different singers offering softer and louder passages, quicker and slower passages, all anchored by a central, electrifying lumbering elephant march of a bassline and a sleek, confidently delivered hook where they compare their love to that shot of morning coffee. The next two tracks “REWIND” and “CACTUS” are the two here written almost entirely in Korean, and end up feeling all the more natural for it, settling into a consistent and comfortable groove. “REWIND” is one of the softer-toned tracks here, keeping the 90s energy alive with a smooth R&B ballad with some great understated vocal moments as the group seeks to reignite a past relationship. “CACTUS” opens with nothing but a somber guitar line before exploding into a powerful pop-rock song reminiscent of some of the most iconic Disney Channel music, the group finally using their strong membership to offer some pretty stunning harmonies and a belted chorus about loneliness with emotions running high. It’s fantastic to hear the group’s versatility as the project winds down.
Before a closing track that returns to the group’s roots, we get three songs that see the group of nine splitting into 3 subgroups of 3, each with their own track to offer. While these feel like some of the more undercooked ideas on the project, it’s still interesting to hear certain areas and talents in the diverse group highlighted. The best offering is another high-energy dance-pop track from Sana, Dahyun and Jihyo on “PUSH & PULL,” but hearing a full-on hip-hop track from the rappers on “HELLO” is another nice shot of variety, despite sounding a little dated instrumentally. The project closes out with “CANDY,” with a blissful and highly cutesy bubblegum pop sound that the group essentially mastered on their earlier works, and they’ve still got it. The breezy track about a perfect romance essentially serves as a palate cleanser for a rather chaotic record of strong pop tracks.
TWICE have been one of the most consistently great K-pop acts for a while, and the quantity and speed at which they release music hasn’t diminished that like you might expect. While there’s always some degree of obvious manufacturing going on and a couple tracks lack the usual soul, there’s certainly some brilliant minds at work, and you can always count on them for a couple absolute knockouts.
Favourite Tracks: ESPRESSO, MOONLIGHT, CACTUS, REWIND, ICON
Least Favourite Track: CRUEL