Album Review #6: “The First” – SHINee

You know that feeling you get when you feel like you have tons of opinions and no opinions about something all at the same time? That’s basically how I feel about this album.

When news broke of SHINee releasing a full-length Japanese album, I was pretty excited. Until now, all of SHINee’s releases were mere remakes of their previous Korean singles. In the nine months that SHINee’s been in Japan, they’ve released only one original Japanese song, “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” which was surprisingly good. It was almost as if SHINee had been holding out on us and this first Japanese album was supposed to be their way of regaining all the attention they had lost from their relatively uninteresting career stint in Japan.

And they seem to have succeeded, as the K-pop world has been moderately abuzz with excitement about their new album. The excitement is merited as SHINee hasn’t released anything new in over a year, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the songs themselves aren’t bad. The tracks on The First exhibit a significant amount of musical growth since Lucifer, and the members themselves have also shown a marked amount of improvement since then. But is relative improvement and growth enough with which to base one’s entire perception of an album’s overall quality?

I think the only thing that’s keeping me from falling completely in love with The First is my recent falling-out from the SHINee bandwagon. SHINee just hasn’t done anything remotely exciting since Lucifer, and the music on The First, while generally good, was not enough to draw me back into SHINee or regain my faith in them. And I find this to be kind of alarming – most of the people who are spazzing over this album are already die-hard SHINee fans who would be happy with any SHINee release so long as it isn’t another Korean remake. But that’s where the line seems to have been drawn.

There are three major flaws with The First. Firstly, six out of thirteen songs were already released as singles this year, which literally halves the total value of the album.  While this is common practice for many K-pop artists, it’s a common practice of laziness. One of Lucifer’s biggest selling points was that all the songs on the album were brand new, and the SHINee members always made sure to make a point of that when they were promoting the album. But this should be standard, guys. Putting old songs on a new record basically means that the producers couldn’t even scrounge up the effort to dig into their their basement music stashes to find a few filler pieces to put on the album. That, to me, signals an overall lack of effort that was probably fueled by a need to put out a full-length album ASAP.

Secondly, none of these songs are fit for the Japanese market, and nor were they composed with the explicit intention of selling them in the Japanese market. The old tracks were, obviously, written by Korean songwriters, whereas the new tracks were mostly written by European and American songwriters. Above all, there was not a single Japanese staff member who had a direct hand in the composition or production of these songs. It’s as if SM and EMI didn’t even try to hide the fact that SHINee is just transplanting a bunch of songs onto a Japanese record with absolutely no regard to the Japanese music scene itself. This is K-pop Invasion Blasphemy at its worst, people, and I don’t want to believe that such little effort was made to legitimicize SHINee’s first big step into the Japanese market.

I mean, at least when other groups debut in Japan with Japanese versions of their past Korean singles, it’s pretty clear to everyone that these groups aren’t planning on doing a full-blown Japanese debut or are expecting to achieve high regard in the Japanese music scene. But this isn’t the case for SHINee, who’s constantly touted as being the “little brothers” of DBSK and who is expected to follow in the footsteps of their sunbaes. The release of a full-length album was supposed to be a form of proof that SHINee is serious about their career in Japan, but this form of proof just isn’t strong enough to be proving anything. Long-lasting success in Japan can only happen when there’s continuous solid collaboration with Japanese staff and a genuine regard for the Japanese market and music scene. The First exhibits neither, and there’s honestly nothing “Japanese” about it aside from the fact that all the tracks are sung in Japanese. If SHINee wants to be taken seriously in Japan, releasing an album devoid of any Japanese artistic presence is certainly not the way to do it.

And lastly, not one of the new songs fits SHINee as a musical group. Almost every new song on the album seems to have been purchased by SM from overseas composers, which means that none of these songs were originally composed with any specific regard to SHINee’s style or nuances as a group. This just doesn’t spell good news for any album, Japanese or Korean. Not only does it reflect an overall lack of effort on SM’s part, but it also just makes for an all-around low-quality album.  It’s painfully obvious that SHINee’s presence in each song is akin to colors in a coloring book: the outline was drawn by one person and filled in by another. It doesn’t necessarily make for an ugly picture, but it’s nowhere near the quality of a 100 percent original painting.

This is a problem that runs rampant throughout all K-pop companies and affects almost every K-pop group and artist, and I think it could be argued that this is the reason why K-pop can sound so dry and generic. SHINee’s sound and function as a musical group is far from generic, and they’re not vocally well-rounded enough to be shoved into any song and still sound okay. I can’t think of a single scenario where a K-pop group would be done justice by singing songs that weren’t specifically written for them, and SHINee is far from being the exception. Once again, the fact that this practice is being put into place for a release as monumental as a first full-length Japanese album spells bad news in itself.

But it’s not a bad album. I’m entirely uncomfortable of where it stands as a crucial milestone of SHINee’s Japanese debut and as a part of SHINee’s repertoire as a whole, but there’s nothing wrong with the music and it makes for an enjoyable listen so long as you don’t go into it expecting a masterpiece. I suppose that’s what’s keeping me from fully enjoying this album; SHINee’s activities in Japan this year has made me really nervous, and I had hoped that this album would help to quell my anxiety about SHINee’s career path as a whole. I think I’ve always expected a lot from SHINee – who wouldn’t, considering their stunning debut? – but K-pop is what K-pop is, and SHINee is just another victim. Le sigh.

-★-

I usually do track-by-track overviews of every album I review, but I’m having a hard time writing something for every track on this album because I find that my opinions on each song aren’t very varied. I basically have the same non-opinion about all of the Japanese remake songs: they’re tolerable. That’s all. See how boring it is when all you release are foreign-language remakes of old songs?

And as for the new songs — as aforementioned, I don’t think that any of the new songs were good fits for SHINee, but it was somewhat interesting to hear them try out new types of music. For one, it’s nice to finally hear Minho actually sing — I’m sure he’s probably still a trainwreck live, but he’s got a nice voice and hearing him in studio recordings allows me to pretend that he’s actually a good singer.

A lot of these songs sound really promising for the first bars, but beyond that, they’re completely unmemorable. The strongest track on the album is, arguably, “Better” — but it doesn’t offer much more than just nice melodies and a somewhat compelling song structure. There’s nothing original about it (I was immediately reminded of Kim Hyun-joong’s “Please” upon first listen), and I forgot what it sounded like immediately after I finished listening to it. The same could easily be said of all the other new tracks on the album.

I get the feeling that I’ll end up liking these songs more if I continue to put the CD on repeat, but I’m not sure if I’m that willing to dig myself out of my overall apathy for this album. My biggest gripe with the songs on The First is that they don’t suit SHINee — and not in the sense that SHINee was experimenting musically and things just didn’t work out, but that many of the songs sound as if SHINee had been forcibly squeezed into the mold of the song, with little regard as to SHINee’s inherent musical “shape” and style as a group.

For all its faults, the Lucifer album did a far better job of “fitting” SHINee than The First did, and when you’re talking about a group who wants to build a legacy, the synergy between the artist and its music is incredibly important. Just look at groups like U-Kiss and 4minute — both have questionable amounts of talent, but they always sound great because their music suits them. Comparatively speaking, SHINee has way too much talent to have to deal with poor music choices.

SM just needs to reorganize their song acquisition tactics. All of their artists’ current releases feature way too much out-of-house influence, which then results in poor matching between artist and song. The best thing SM can do is recruit more in-house composers who are contracted full-time to SM and who fully understand and are willing to write music exclusively for SM’s artists. SM has placed too much influence on trying to achieve a “global” sound by recruiting foreign composers, but this has ultimately caused SM’s music to become unfocused and sloppy, and has ultimately done little to help SM achieve the global presence that they so desire. Instead, a return to the basics — good music that is tailored specifically to their artists’ abilities and styles — should be all that is needed to help SM gain the respect that they’re looking for.

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  • I think they debuted in japan to promote themselves, not to stay in the japanese market for a long time.
    And kiss kiss kiss is a really great song as you’ve said. :D

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree with you. :) The songs on their album are all like generic pop songs that sound very similar and are very forgettable. And SM is  doing a crappy job of promoting Shinee in Japan. *sighs* and they had so much potential!
    But as a loyal Shawol (hehe:D) I’ve listen to the album quite a bit and found that my favorite song is actually To Your Heart (though Better isn’t bad, but have you heard Onew’s ad-libs at the end of To Your Heart? they’re amazing :D)