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Review: f(x)’s Red Light is their weakest album since debut
Release: July 7, 2020
Producer/Distributor: SM Entertainment/KT Music
Genre: Electronic, synthpop
SM Entertainment‘s (shortened) marketing for Red Light seemed to be a rehash of Pink Tape (2020)’s promotion. There wasn’t a full art-film teaser this time, but the teaser-lite did hint at mystery and intrigue, maybe a little taste of horror for the summer. The album itself lives up to the billing about as much as Pink Tape (which went on to become our Dance/Electronic Album of the Year 2020) lived up to its teaser – that is to say, not much at all. I suppose whether you were disappointed or not depends on how cynical you are about these things.
In reviewing f(x) three times in this space over the last three years (here, here and here), I’ve covered and retreaded the narrative of this group a few times. In Red Light, f(x) and SM mostly retread old ground themselves, starting with the teaser. f(x) is the most consistently critically well-received idol group in the country, so getting more of what made that possible is surely not the worst thing that could happen. But the few things they do try anew don’t help the album very much, either.
So what’s back? The top-notch sound polish, of course. The sounds of Red Light are fun, bold, intricate, and distinct. The last part is the most impressive: in an album awash with synths and pads, Kenzie, Thomas Troelsen and company again succeed in crafting instantly identifiable sound. Lead single “Red Light” features trap bass and diced synths, as if to translate strobe lights into sound. “나비 (Butterfly)” juxtaposes harsh and heavy textures with warm ambience and diffusion, making f(x)’s first foray into dream pop a memorable one. “All Night” takes the place of previous albums’ retro jams (“아이 – Love” and “Signal”, respectively) and adds a touch of funky soul through an eclectic, high-fidelity mix of string and electronic palettes. (Very much courtesy of Jinbo, who is listed as a producer.) The halfhearted attempts at new styles (“무지개 (Rainbow)”‘s hip-hop, “Dracula”‘s theatrics) leave the album saddled, but the audio is still mostly spectacular.
The vocal direction, meanwhile, is a departure from the past. Red Light increases the role of harmony compared to previous f(x) work: for example, the bridge and chorus of “Red Light” are noticeably more layered than before – compare to the individual focus of “Pinocchio” or the round mechanics of “Rum Pum Pum Pum”. (The round structure itself, by the way, survives here through “Milk”.) Rich harmonics are also prominently featured in “바캉스 (Vacance)”, “Dracula”, and “종이 심장 (Paper Heart)”. For a group that made its name on maximizing each member’s individual vocal niche (sometimes even in chorus sections), this is an unexpected development.
Additionally, the album shifts Luna and Krystal to a more prominent lead-vocal role (the former more so than the latter), increases Amber‘s involvement in the melody game, and reduces the moments when Sulli and Victoria used to shine the most – the speedy, conversational riffs and rhythmic delivery. Luna and Amber thrive, but the last part is problematic. Part of the reason, I think, is that both Sulli and Victoria are now capable of handling more technically demanding parts than before. But as I’ve written about, f(x)’s sub-vocals do much more than just provide backdrop for the leads; their unique styles make a lot of the group’s quirky and atmospheric stuff possible. (A song like this album’s “Boom Bang Boom” is really best fit for their styles.) So the net effect is dubious.
That brings us to the themes and lyrics of Red Light. The lead single is somewhat of a throwback to the old-school Yoo Young-jin SMP days – when SM boy bands spanning the years from H.O.T. to TVXQ would spend every other track releasing teen angst and superficial social commentary and BoA would sometimes participate. That’s an unfair comparison, but coming from f(x), this sort of charged message does jar you. Kenzie’s lyrics themselves are standard fare, demanding change from the culture of competition and strife. It seems more style than substance, frankly. The song does define a new “serious” spectrum for f(x), both sonically and thematically. Unfortunately, with mediocre “Dracula” as its sole companion, “Red Light”‘s atmosphere holds little sway over the rest of the album.
Red Light is best when it’s about the same thing that f(x) has always been about: creative voicing of high-teen and twenty-something sensibilities and emotions. It’s not quite as zany as the seminal Electric Shock (2020), being much closer to Pink Tape in content. Lyricist Misfit (sort of taking the role of Jeon Gandhi from the last album) slyly mixes onomatopoeia and confrontational attitude into “뱉어내 (Spit It Out)”. The album’s most entertaining song, “Boom Bang Boom”, is powered by unorthodox structure and a second-person metaphor of a ring fight to represent a budding relationship, while its best lyrics (in fact, perhaps f(x)’s best in years – no small feat) come from the tender confessions of “Paper Heart”. Seo Ji-eum, a frequent SM and f(x) collaborator, puts on a clinic with that song’s balance of identifiable emotions with pretty language.
As good as these are, it’s unfortunate that the new attempts in this album are not very convincing. SM moved on from the security of Pink Tape, which is commendable, but went in a direction that weakened the group’s former strengths. I do see a lot of potential in the atmosphere of “Milk” and risk-taking of “Butterfly”, and if harnessed well I think tracks like this will be what f(x) can build a long discography upon. For the moment, Red Light is the group’s weakest album since its debut EP. (Though ‘weak’ for this group is ‘pretty darn good’ for a lot of people.) We can hope that these are just growing pains, as F(x) start to explore the intermediate years of their career.
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
1. Red Light
3. 나비 (Butterfly)
4. 무지개 (Rainbow)
5. All Night
6. 바캉스 (Vacance)
7. 뱉어내 (Spit It Out)
8. Boom Bang Boom
10. Summer Lover
11. 종이 심장 (Paper Heart)
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August 22, 2020 at 10:41 am
I actually thought this was their strongest album. This was the first of their albums I immediately liked from beginning to end. To be honest, I thought “Dracula” was the *best* song on the album and Vacance was the weakest, while it’s the other way around in this article. I do enjoy your writing style, however
August 8, 2020 at 11:03 am
I have a shared analysis above without the “extreme hate”. Even though those people have one-word answers, I understand their view, and I understand that many people like this album, and so would disagree. I believe that a strong hook, in fact, weakens music, and is one of my gripes in the modern pop world. So many songs bank on hooks instead of pure expressive art.
I think Red Light might not be business-ready, and may not appeal to the average K-pop listener, but most real artists don’t anyway. Strong composition only works when the music in the background works with the song. Otherwise, you are left with a hollow piece of art that lacks all substance and depth.
Being “weird” is not what makes this album a charm or any album, and experimentation isn’t necessary, though it is present, but the fact that many songs had many different in-depth meanings, such as “Red Light”, the lyrics were clever, each instrumental played well with the lyrics, the vocals and talents showed much improvement, there was a spirit of variety for any ear, even you can find a song to like. Again, the inconsistent songs were like Pocahontas’s What’s Around the Riverbend or Fantasia translated into pop music. I will take “Boom Bang Boom” for example. The verses have two girls who don’t get along, we can feel that with the verses, the bridge challenges the girl and asks the girl to step into the ring, when the chorus comes, the girls are fighting, and we can feel that sound. We can picture it as they sing. They are creating a musical “scene” for us. That is art. The ability to paint a picture through the music, and that is uncommon in K-pop. That level of artistry, again, is hardly found in pop. “Butterfly” is also wistful and light, conveying a true butterfly without having to even read the lyrics. So many others, but above I went into detail.
A good song is not a catchy one, neither is it a club-banger, but an emotionally expressive piece that tells a story. That is the point of music to lyrics. Otherwise, we can just listen to an instrumental without lyrics.
Though you focus on the composition and hook of a chorus, you left out a lot in regards to lyrical content in your analysis, which shows me you didn’t take the whole artistic piece into account.
This was an artistic album at best. The whole point of art is emotional expression, and they delivered that more on this album than any other. They had substance (they sang very detailed love song, a dystopic pop number “Red Light”, and even some fun summer songs). This album had a variety of different genres. If you are not into House or Trap, some songs would sound foreign to you. I think it’s innovative, as it draws in a new crowd, and kicks mainstream music lovers to the curb.
I listen to music around the world, from again, Turkish Tarkan to Ludwig.
Pink Tape only had two artistic pieces at best, and the rest was left to the generic pop listener, hardly any depth, just catchy tunes to suit your fancy. “Shadow” and “Good-bye Summer” were the most interesting pieces and works of art on that album, the rest fell short. But there was still a heavy load of variety and the album had very interesting instrumentals that conveyed the lyrics quite well. It was better in it’s story-telling than Electric Shock. But I suppose for business purposes, Pink Tape fits well with mainstream Korea without following the trends.
Just my opinion.
July 29, 2020 at 6:03 pm
I find it very annoying when people make comments such as “OMG! WORST ARTICLE EVER” or “This is pretentious!”. Their intentions are to disagree but none offers the reasons why they do. f(x) is in a very interesting position in K-Pop; they have both the huge fanbase as well as the well-deserved critical acclaim, and this applies to their whole visions in an album, not just terrific singles and forgettable filler.
For me, f(x)’s biggest downfall with the album is they’re not as “weird” as they think they are. Several risks were taken, several experimentation were carried out but none actually work. The songwriting doesn’t deliver on the weirdest track, and it’s cool that they always want to try new things, but without strong compositions and hooks, it won’t work. My personal favorite is the most-straightforward track: All Night, which sounds very Jinbo; it’s nowhere near the heights of Pink Tape but immensely enjoyable and the songwriting is there.
July 23, 2020 at 8:46 am
July 22, 2020 at 4:06 pm
This is fantastic – thanks again for the detailed response. All valid points, and I think I understand where you’re coming from now.
July 22, 2020 at 1:40 pm
I suppose Red Light has less of an impact on casual pop listeners than Pink Tape.
I knew about them through Electric Shock, but I really just started examining their work closer five months ago. I’ve observed them carefully.
Pink Tape had a couple of artistic pieces, such as “Shadow” and “Good-bye Summer”. I felt the sound of “Shadow” cleverly conveyed a “shadow” with the smooth vocals, and the eerie feeling. Even if the listener couldn’t understand the lyrics, the tone conveyed feeling, to the point you could almost picture the “shadow”. It was a true form of art. That level of artistry is most commonly found on Broadway, like in Disney’s Fantasia.
Electric Shock’s EP, in comparison, lacked that kind of artistry or feeling. The sounds didn’t convey the feeling of the lyrics. I couldn’t picture anything solid through the music. It was almost as hollow as any pop album. Jet was about being too busy to have a love life. I couldn’t feel that with the melody, tune, or lyrics. Neither spoke to me. As English is my first language, I couldn’t know what that song was about before translating the lyrics because the sound was simply catchy, but didn’t move with the lyrics as if they were “speaking” to the listener. Though it was meant to be an independent song, I was left feeling that it was a party song, not even picturing a girl turning down a lover. It was electronic, and just like electronics, hollow like a robot. Zig-Zag gets mixed up with Jet. The song is about having a complicated love life, but the melody, the instrumental, didn’t convey that. Beautiful Stranger was one of the very few songs that conveyed passion. The song is about two foreigners falling in love, often having cultural and language barriers. Amber, being the natural “rapper” of the song, conveyed passion in that song, as it apparently related to her as an artist. The low tones in the verses conveyed a person trying to reach out, when it gets to the bridge/chorus we can almost picture the person stretching their hands towards the person in an attempt to try to finally reach out and confess the feelings. It’s almost like putting lyrics to imagination, making a “scene” out of the song. If we were to do the same with Jet or Zig Zag, we would end up empty-handed. Baby Let’s Try also did really well in conveying girls being caught up in a romance with someone, and just wanting to run away or “leave” a particular place with that person. It carried that light air with it. I knew it was a love song even before I knew what the lyrics were saying. Though I think it was a generic love song, it was still creative in it’s approach. Electric Shock, the song itself, conveyed the feeling of an “Electric Shock” running up the body while the first blush of love exists quite well, and one of the most commendable pieces on that EP. The others were left dry. Love/Hate also failed to feel like a love/hate song, and sounded more like cheer-chant. The ups-and-downs they were feeling was lost. I wouldn’t have known what it was about had the title not had love/hate in it, and the chorus didn’t shout it out a hundred times. They didn’t paint a picture of love-hate through the melody or vocals the way “Shadow” did in Pink Tape.
I always feel music should be expressive. But then again, I keep Opera and Showtunes in my collection of music. I listen to a lot of world music, from Turkish Tarkan to Ludwig.
Another reason I felt Electric Shock was f(x)’s weakest was because of the lack of variety. While each sound was experimental, it fell mostly in the average up-beat pop genre. Jet was upbeat, but lacking in terms of depth. I could really take or leave that song. It was awkwardly cute, and sounded like it was for children under the age of 12. Love/Hate was typical of Asian pop (I listen to J-pop, C-pop, V-pop, many Asian pop songs). It simply had a catchy chorus, a lot of shouting, zany, but meaningless lyrics. Love/Hate was upbeat like most of the other songs. There wasn’t something for everyone, which I felt Red Light delivered. Mostly only people who like upbeat, dance-pop music would like Electric Shock’s EP, but if you preferred ballads, acoustics, piano instrumental, House, Trap, retro, or even a mature, sexy evening song, you couldn’t find it. Electric Shock was a bit repetitive, and I often felt I was hearing the same song over and over again, especially between Electric Shock, Jet, and Zig Zag. The same “electronic” feeling was heard throughout all the songs. The concept killed the variety and emotional artistry. As well as vocal potential.
Even Nu Abo delivered the variety. From Dear Daddy, we have a soothing piano ballad. Nu Abo was fierce, and catchy. Mr. Boogie was sexy and silky. Me +U are for people who like more upbeat, bubblegum entertainment. Surprise Party was mellow for those who dislike a bunch of head-bangers.
With Red Light, I’m just going to take “Red Light” for example. The low verses carry a ticking sound, like a bomb is ticking, bringing in an experimental trap feeling. When the bridge occurs, we are told to “stop for a moment and breath”. just as the lyrics say it, the song follows suit. Then the chorus erupts into the House genre, just like the revolution they are trying to portray. The lyrics are encouraging us to re-examine our values, symbolizing themselves as activists trying to boldly make a statement to us, trying to make us really see the world beyond the superficial, according to Arirang’s BTS of f(x)’s red light. Using Caterpillar, the American diesel-fueled organization, also known as CAT, as symbols, they embark to show us all we take for granted everything under our noses. “All Night” is a slick sound, good for an older crowd who enjoys smooth 70’s disco numbers (the seniors seem to gravitate to this song), and the song is so sexy, it feels like something seductive is happening “all night”. “Paper Heart”, the folk, Taylor-Swift-like country song, draws in those fans that love meaningful songs. The light sound is delicate just like a “paper heart”. “Butterfly” is an example of this too. “Butterfly” sounds light and wistful just like a butterfly floating lazily in the sky. Even Boom Bang Boom begins intensely, expressing the anger that occurs between two girls, when Luna’s bridge comes, she challenges the girl to enter the ring, once the chorus comes, they are fighting. We can feel that and picture it as they sing. To add, they actually used their vocals in many songs instead of the heavy synchronization present due to technology, like in Electric Shock. The Red Light album draws in all kinds of people of different musical tastes.
The level of artistry is similar to Pocahontas’s “What’s Around the Riverbend”, especially how each sound inconsistently conveys each emotion she sings. It’s like when you hear Tom and Jerry. They don’t speak, but you can hear what’s going on by the song in the background. f(x) translated this to pop music in Pink Tape and Red Light.
Electric shock failed to do that. It was simply designed to play at people’s parties and BBQ’s, holding back in depth and substance, chomping down on electronics, which disguised the girls’ vocal potentials, and pumped out dance numbers without stopping to help the listener get the sense of what each song was even about. For a person native to the language, people could overlook the lack of feeling. If you just want to dance, sure, they would, too. But if you’re alone in your room, trying to find a meaningful piece to think about and contemplate like you would art in an art museum, Electric Shock would be last on my list.
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