Side B: The Hidden Depths of IU
Welcome to another installment of Side B! This time we’re taking a look at the “notorious” Lee Ji-eun, known best by her stage name IU. Famously regarded as the “Nation’s Little Sister,” IU is probably most recognised for her cute, innocent image and her breathy, yet surprisingly potent tone. Being a little over one year following last year’s Last Fantasy, IU’s last promotional period to date (her most recent effort, Spring of a Twenty Year Old was unfortunately not properly promoted), I saw it as an ample opportunity to look into IU and the particular gems in her extensive discography.
Debuting way back in 2008 at the very young age of 15, IU has grown by leaps and bounds from her original image. Originally debuting with the chilling and melancholy “Mia,” the young IU was able to demonstrate a maturity that betrayed her age, and coupled with an interesting and haunting voice, IU’s potential was blatantly clear. However, after the lackluster results of her –admittedly ethereal — debut, IU opted for a more age appropriate image with her following comeback “Boo,” the image she’s retained and is known for today.
Following “Boo” was the very saccharine “Marshmallow” and her endearing duet with 2AM‘s Seulong “Nagging,” both of which became moderately successful with the public. However, IU’s popularity absolutely exploded come the release of “Good Day,” a peppy, orchestral peace that made best use of IU’s youthful image and breathy voice. Last year’s “You and I,” the lead single of the previously mentioned Last Fantasy only reaffirmed her exploding popularity. Her latest effort, the unadvertised Spring of a Twenty Year Old, was released this spring, just preceding IU’s first solo tour, “Real Fantasy.” Along the way, IU has dabbled in dramas — starring as one of the youthful leads on the idol-centric Dream High — and variety as well — being a regular in SBS‘s Heroes.
Quite recently, IU was buried in a controversy with Super Junior‘s Eunhyuk, and due to the negative reaction to the issue, many suspected IU could no longer keep her status as the “Nation’s Little Sister.” Nevertheless, controversy or no controversy, it is clear that time has exponentially changed IU’s image, direction, and sound. However, one thing has always been constant for the “Nation’s Little Sister:” some great B-sides. So without further ado, let’s start this B-side, shall we?
Being the lauded vocalist she is, IU’s musical repertoire consists mainly of melodic ballads, ranging from somber to bittersweet, and intense to subtle. As is the case with many balladeers, many of their songs, if not done right, can sound repetitive and unspectacular, being nothing more than vocal showcases that can verge on being completely underwhelming. And admittedly, IU’s very ballad-driven discography occasionally veers toward this path, to the point that the few upbeat tracks, even the completely saccharine ones, can be seen as breaths of fresh air. However, there are quite noticeable exceptions to this, the first bring the surprising “Feel So Good” on IU’s first debut mini, Lost and Found.
While compared to the stellar and chilling “Mia,” the rest of the humble album can be easily seen as underwhelming with its constant pace changes and unexpected diversity, made to showcase IU’s versatility. However, the mellow and fluid “Feel So Good” manages to surprise as well. It exudes a subtle maturity quite different from that which was portrayed in “Mia,” a maturity that would’ve seemed unlikely for an inexperienced 15 year old. The relaxed and faded instrumental lets IU’s intriguing tone and emotive vocals take center stage, which are most definitely IU’s best asset.
Found as the second track in IU’s “Nagging” single with 2AM’s Seulong, on paper, “Raindrop” seems largely interchangeable with any of the other ballads in IU’s extensive discography. However, the song manages to stand out with its genuineness and its heart. IU’s vocals are as captivating as ever, and the instrumental is strong yet subtle with its use of snare drums, making an absolutely irresistible listen and an IU classic. No wonder it was one of the few songs IU chose to translate into Japanese for her debut Japanese mini.
Something I adore about IU is the underlying darkness she is able to pull off. While she is best known for her lovable, innocent image, the dark and twisted complement IU quite well. This is shown best in the convoluted “Cruel Fairly Tale,” found accompanying the similarly “The Story Only I Didn’t Know” in her Real+ single. With the progression imitating a traditional waltz and with IU’s eerie whisper-like and seemingly detached vocals, the song is able to send chills down spines, showing a twisted side of IU that I wish was more often showcased.
Full of great tracks showcasing the quintessence of IU’s artistry, last year’s Last Fantasy has clearly been my favorite release from IU yet. Despite featuring a single that many called out for being too similar to her previous “Good Day” (I was personally fine with it), the entire album in itself is able to emulate this fleeting world of childlike fantasy and innocence that just epitomizes IU, framing the tale told by the lead single. The fantasy elements of the album are so absolutely fitting and a pleasure to listen to, and the delicate and orchestral sounds of the instrumentals fit IU’s voice and direction quite perfectly. “Secret” is one such song, featuring a delicate instrumental of piano, violin, and later percussion, with IU’s storytelling voice that instantly makes one think of fairy tales.
“Wallpaper Design” is another song full of fantasy elements, with its mood made clear from the beginning, courtesy of the music box opening. The complex instrumental soon flutters through in completely different directions, surprising with the various — oftentimes deliciously surprising — applications the song takes with its instruments. The gradual instrumental slowly builds to a layered piece perfectly framing the stable voice of IU, making for a completely refreshing and invigorating listen.
Majority of the tracks from Last Fantasy sum up IU to a T, in terms of where she stands now as a musician, but the album also provided multiple surprises, showing IU effortlessly taking on other unexpected genres. The second to last song, “4AM”, is a completely jazzy piece that sounds completely different from most of the music populating K-pop at the moment. With its lazy vocals courtesy of IU, the laid back song is not only a refreshing breath of fresh air in the album but in K-pop in general. Moreover, IU suited the song so amazingly, surprising with her versatility and adaptability as a vocalist.
The other song on Last Fantasy that managed to surprise was “L’Amant.” Again surprising with its largely classical and jazz influences, the minimal instrumental highlights IU’s surprisingly powerful vocals, and boy, do they shine in this song. Complemented by the soulful musings of a saxophone, the song’s chorus features some of the best vocal stretching I’ve heard in IU for a long time, fully demonstrating her skill and improvements as a vocalist.
With the jolly holiday of Christmas coming so soon, I thought I’d end this ballad-filled Side B by leaving you all with peppy “Merry Christmas in Advance.” The song, also the closer of IU’s insanely successful mini album Real, presents an upbeat yet grounded sound, a rarity in IU’s discography which tends to favor either ballad or overly sweet dance pieces. Starting slow and sentimental with a piano opening, the track soon hastens its pace with the introduction of IU’s close friend MBLAQ‘s Thunder. While his rap is slightly lacking, his chemistry with the sentimental IU is undeniable, making for a highly likable piece perfect for the holidays.
While the overly sentimental or peppy sound IU has adopted for her lead singles is surely polarizing, IU is nonetheless able to show her dexterity and skill in some laudable B-sides. While many disapprove of the abrupt shift of her image at the beginning of her career — trading the powerful “Mia” with more sweeter material such as “Good Day” — some of IU’s B-sides still demonstrate the maturity she most definitely rode on at the start, something that a good number of fans have missed.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Side B! Make sure to check out other editions of the segment, and feel free to recommend any additional songs below!