The follow-up to 2011′s wildly successful “Last Fantasy” – which not only solidified IU’s position as Korea’s sweetheart and led to some short-lived Japanese promotions – is not, as her management would want you to think, that big a deal (musically). Yes, she’s turning twenty (she’s a legal adult, so no longer do uncle fans have to feel like creepy pedo-oppars whilst they oogle at her), and yes, she’s written one of the songs on her new EP, but from a musical standpoint, it’s a rather gentle transition into womanhood, despite Loen Entertainment‘s best efforts to hype shit up (e.g. taking a page from the Core Contents Media playbook and releasing a 20+ minute music video for “At The End Of Every Day” – quantity does not equal quality).
IU’s newest release, “Spring Of A Twenty Year Old“, is more of a variation on her previous work than anything drastically new. Her management team at Loen, it seems, is loath to stray from what’s clearly been a winning formula for her past three releases (“Nagging“, “Good Day“, “You & I“).
Which is not to say it’s bad – all three songs on this latest EP are gems, with flawless production that brings to front and center IU’s lovely (if a bit breathy) tone.
The lead single, “At The End Of Every Day” (produced, surprisingly, not by Lee Min Soo but by Park Geun Tae and Kim Do Hoon, with longtime IU lyricist Kim Eana) sounds spring-like, with its soft lower end and washed out highs. It’s very much like an “IU song”, with its eclectic, almost whimsical melange of washed out pianos, that warm Rhodes that’s been featured in both “Good Day” and “You & I”, violins, trumpets, deliciously original chord progression, and its oh-so-close to breaking the fourth wall lyrics, with lines like, “Even though I have on a cold face/My heart isn’t like that, it’s a lie/But foolish you makes me frustrated/I wait again and wonder what I should do/And at the end of the day, I say I love you“. So basically, fanboys, even though you waited hours to see her at a KBS‘s “Music Bank” filming and she doesn’t wave back, she still loves you. Or something like that.
With that said, “At The End Of Every Day” also sounds like “You & I” and “Good Day” mashed together, which is fine and good – but there is something to be said about how repetitive this is all starting to sound. This EP was supposed to reveal a mature IU, so why does this sound like what we’ve been hearing since 2010?
“Peach“, IU’s self-composed track, is also a simple acoustic guitar track that milks the falsetto sound that IU has basically cornered off as her trademark sound. We see a more cotton candy-esque, charmingly naive quality to her timbre that we don’t get to see in her higher-BPM lead singles. And just to make things weirder (not that it wasn’t weird enough with the erotic peach doodle) f(x)‘s Sulli was the inspiration for such lines as, “With those legs that are so pretty just standing still/You walk toward me and you hug me“. I’ll let you interpret for yourself what this all means.
The most mature song on this single, ”I Really Dislike Her“, discards the frivolous baby talk to dive into relationship territory. In this track, we get to see the emotional context of IU’s songs deepen – instead of pining over how handsome and charming oppa is, she’s now concerned with his emotions and feelings. Granted, we’re not quite in Ali (“Immortal Song 2“) territory in terms of soul-wrenching anguish (“Na Young“, anyone?), but the emotional complexity in “I Really Dislike Her” (relative to, say, “Peach”) is a step in the right direction.
This review has been long in the making, but I’m partially grateful for the delay, if only because it has given me the context to see IU’s musical development not only in terms of K-pop, but in terms of a larger discussion about differences between Eastern and Western pop cultures.
Justin Bieber is another artist that comes to mind when considering the difficulty of growing up in the public eye. Both are artists who have achieved superstardom at a young age and are now in the process of transitioning out of the childhood personas that made them famous and into adults – and in the process, skipping over adolescence. The musical decisions that each have made, though, are striking in that they not only reveal the musical differences between the two artists, but also perhaps give us a glimpse into the deep, underlying cultural differences between East and West.
It’s interesting, for example, to compare the managerial choices and assumptions about the American audience that led to “Boyfriend“, to the managerial choices and assumptions about the Korean audience that led to “At The End Of Every Day”. “Boyfriend” is Justin Bieber, grown-up and trying to expand his audience from tween girls to include older women. ”At The End Of Every Day” has IU still gunning hard for the same audience (uncle fans), but as a 20-year-old.
I’ll let you mull on that, but suffice it to say that it’s fascinating how adeptly IU’s management is manipulating the line between reality and fiction to toy with and titillate the fantasies of IU’s uncle fans.