Album Review #7: “Sherlock” – SHINee

For what it’s worth, I’ve never been too fazed at the outrageous comeback teaser photos of SM artists, even if they do feature half-naked, barely-legal boys with long, strawberry blond hair. If there’s one thing SM’s good at, it’s building up hype, and releasing outrageously ugly teaser photos is one way to get attention. Bad photos doesn’t necessarily mean bad music…it just means that you hold off on buying the album until a repackaged version with better pictures comes out.

The timing for this album’s release is rather odd; while news of SHINee’s comeback has been buzzing about for a good few months or so, it’s weird that SM would choose to bring back SHINee right smack dab in the middle of EXO’s Great Voyage To Debut. It’s also weird that SHINee is breaking their 16 month hiatus in Korea with a dinky little mini-album. This might have to do with the fact that SHINee’s also going to be heading back to Japan in a month to start their arena tour, but still — a mini-album after 16 months and next to no activities in Korea whatsoever? Needless to say, I expected a little more fanfare.

It always makes me a little nervous to see SM do something unexpected. Considering SM’s reputation as being a well-oiled machine with a habit of setting schedules into stone five years into the future, any unexpected behavior is probably due to a last-minute emergency change rather than an attempt to be spontaneous. SHINee’s comeback seems to be squeezed into this month-long block that would’ve been just fine had SM left it empty. Judging from the music alone, there’s a lot about Sherlock that seems rushed and suffers from a lack of good planning. And with everything about SHINee’s comeback as sudden as it is, one can’t help but wonder.

But not everything about K-pop has to be pieced together in perfect order for it to be good. K-pop makes a habit of ensuring that every album is packaged up neatly and logically; that every performance is precise and consistent; that every promotional cycle goes exactly as planned. One could say that K-pop’s predictability is one of its charms, so when we see an album that’s as shoddily put together and screams of “bad planning” as loudly as Sherlock, it’s almost instinctual for us to recoil and reject it. And yes — there’s a lot of things wrong with this album, but there’s also a lot of good. I don’t think we can write off a K-pop album completely just because it looks rather messy on the surface. Heck, indie artists have gotten away with putting out mixtape-like, smorgasbordish “albums” for ages — and apparently, these supposed to be the “real musicians” of the lot.

The “good” of the album pretty much speaks for itself. The three ballad tracks off the album — “Alarm Clock,” “The Reason,” and “Honesty” — might not be particularly inspired or original, but each track has its own character and is dynamic in its own right. “Alarm Clock” is really unique in that the music matches well with the setting of the lyrics, rather than the mood. Considering the lyrics of the song, it would’ve been so easy for “Alarm Clock” to fall straight into overdramatic, weepy-ballad territory. But the lo-fi tone of the song creates a mood that’s placid and hazy, just like the fog before opening one’s eyes in the morning.

The opening riffs of “The Reason” brought me back to my middle school Switchfoot days (yes, judge away), and it was interesting to hear SHINee tackle a ballad that was weighty and compelling without falling into typical Korean-ballad territory. SHINee’s ballads typically rely on Jonghyun and Onew’s grand, sky-reaching ad-libs to build drama within the song (see: “Quasimodo,” “Romantic“), but while these songs are generally unoffensive and make for a pleasant listen, there’s nothing about them that really showcases SHINee’s personality as a group. “The Reason” is different in that SHINee’s character isn’t displayed in the vocalists as much as it is in the background instrumentals. The beat was fresh, modern, and vivacious throughout the whole song, countered by a minimal but nonetheless string chorus and underlying guitar line. And all of it worked. Previous to this, I had believed that “Y.O.U.” was the defining example of a so-called “SHINee ballad,” but I think “Y.O.U.” is one of those songs that can only be done once — the best part about “Y.O.U.” was the mood it created within the song, which is something that would feel stale if reproduced in a second song. A song like “The Reason,” however, relies more on a general musical structure and rhythm to convey its character, which is a lot more flexible to work with.

Honesty” is beautiful in its simplicity. I don’t think SHINee’s ever done a song like this before, and after listening to this song, I’ve begun to believe that every group needs a song like this — plain but sincere; meaningful without being dramatic or weepy. There’s a lot about K-pop that tries too hard too much of the time, and a song like “Honesty” is a breath of fresh air amongst a seemingly never-ending barrage of heavy chords and general overkill. Even without knowing the lyrics, the simplicity and sincerity of this song makes it timeless.

As is the case with most other K-pop albums, the biggest problem with Sherlock lies in its title track — or rather, its title tracks. When SM said that “Sherlock” was a medley of two other songs on the album, they really weren’t kidding. The way in which “Sherlock” is a mash-up of “Clue” and “Note” is highly reminiscent of DBSK’s “TRICK,” but the reason why “TRICK” was so great was because a) it was put together really well, and b) the individual singles that made up “TRICK” were released before the mash-up itself. “Sherlock” is the first track on the album, followed by “Clue” and “Note.” This makes a huge, huge difference — especially considering the fact that “Sherlock” is going to be the song that will be all shoved up in everyone’s faces for the next month, while “Clue” and “Note” remain largely neglected as the album B-sides. The thing about mash-ups is that they’re only cool if the songs that are being mashed-up are already well-known. Otherwise, it just sounds like a halfway cohesive and highly forgettable pop song. That’s exactly what happened to “Sherlock,” and the problem could’ve been easily remedied had “Clue” and “Note” been placed before “Sherlock” in the track listing.

(In fact, I am willing to bet that SM’s buddies in Sweden sent over both “Clue” and “Note,” and SM couldn’t figure out which one to choose for the title track, so they mashed the two up together, called it “Sherlock,” patted themselves on the back, and went straight to work squeezing their remaining creative juices to conjure up the most eyeball-frying concept photos they could think of. SM, if you’re reading this, feel free to give me a call to tell me I was right.)

Nevertheless, it was probably a good idea to combine “Clue” and “Note” rather than letting one serve as the title track over the other. Both songs have notable weak spots — “Clue” doesn’t really seem to have a chorus, while everything outside of the chorus in “Note” is kind of gross. Thus, the choice to combine the two was pretty obvious. I liked “Clue” a lot more than “Note,” and am happy that the two were mashed up if only so the lack of a chorus in “Clue” could be covered up with parts borrowed from “Note.” I would’ve been a lot more happy, though, if SM had just left us with “Sherlock” and forgotten the fact that “Clue” and “Note” existed as separate songs. I’m appalled that both “Clue” and “Note” made it onto the album as legitimate tracks. To me, the presence of “Clue” and “Note” holds just about as much value as an instrumental track on a Japanese single, and slapping the unassembled parts of the title track onto the album in an attempt to pass them as actual songs actually offends me.

Apart from all that though, I really like “Sherlock” as a song, if only because my affinity for musical theater is telling me so. By definition, “Sherlock” isn’t a good pop song at all, and the choreography for it looks hella awkward already, straddling between the realm of catchy pop moves and Broadway-esque kickline. And even though this is SHINee we’re talking about, I’m still pretty paranoid that “Sherlock” will look really terrible on a live stage. In my mind, “Sherlock” isn’t a song that can be pulled off with a few coordinated moves and high leaps. I need jumping leg splits, tap dance sequences, random break-dancing, moving stage parts, 40-60 chorus members twirling in the background. For a song that’s this showy, I demand theatrics! But alas, it’s probably not going to happen, and the best we’ll get is Minho frog-hopping over Key, as seen in the MV teaser. Well, a girl can dream.

This review still feels incomplete, if only because the MV hasn’t been released and SHINee hasn’t performed “Sherlock” live yet. But all things considered, I don’t believe it’ll make much of a difference. No one knows exactly how much time, money, or effort has been spent on this album and promotional effort. But one month is just not a long time to be promoting anything, and Sherlock runs the risk of being highly forgettable. It doesn’t help that the album itself isn’t extraordinarily strong or cohesive, it doesn’t help that the title track isn’t universally appealing, and it really doesn’t help that the comeback itself was heralded with so much ugly that most everyone probably ran off before the album was even released. And with all that, it makes me wonder if all the effort put into this album could’ve been better spent elsewhere.

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  • Was really expecting something better than this. i mean, even Exo’s History sounds better than Sherlock. Tbh, I’m just waiting for the MV and Exo’s debut. Weird indeed that SM’s planning to debut Exo alongside SHINee’s comeback. Oh well, maybe it’s for add’l exposure.