“Hello, did you wait long?” IU sings, the lilt in her voice adding casual breeziness to the greeting.
“You were bored, right?”
Undoubtedly fans of IU will answer yes, considering it’s been two years to the month since her last original album Modern Times was released. While her remake album Flower Bookmark helped to alleviate the wait, CHAT-SHIRE marks her official return with a mini-album of seven songs all written and in part composed by IU.
If there’s one thing we can count on with IU, it’s the dedication to which her albums adhere to a concept, both narratively and musically. Once upon a time, Last Fantasy featured sentimental pop ballads with soaring orchestral instrumentation and full range of IU’s vocals to capture the bittersweet taste at the end of a childhood. More recently, Modern Times was a jazzy, big band affair, seductive in the lyrical narrative of a 1920s life and love affair. So what now? Simply judging from the title of IU’s newest mini-album CHAT-SHIRE, two years has provided more than enough material for the soloist, who has chosen to push listeners down the rabbit hole to tell her own version of Wonderland.
As the first track, “Shoes” sets the scene with the intriguing instrumentations we’ve come to expect from IU – breezy violins are laid over funky electric guitar notes to give the song a jaunty sound. IU’s vocals are delicate and unhurried even as the song crests into the chorus, and the lyrics match the mood of the song. “Shoes” makes direct mention of IU’s previous single “The Red Shoes,” but here, she excludes childlike wonder and joy:
The gentle and sweet breeze makes me excited
Steep steps, narrow alleys, I’ll go anywhere
I’ll wear shoes that suit my heart perfectly
The jazzy “Zezé” follows with sleek beats and an electronic echo to IU’s vocals as she references the Brazilian novel “Meu Pé de Laranja Lima,” telling the story of a boy who holds conversations and shares secrets with the orange tree in his backyard until he makes a new friend in his town. “Zezé” is an ode from the orange tree to the boy as it contemplates Zezé’s character, feeling affection towards him despite having heard the boy’s uncensored and most secret thoughts. “You’ll come again tomorrow night to see me, right?” the lyrics ask, but there is none of the expected longing heard in the song. Instead, IU’s voice is full of attitude and coquettish as she croons of the tree’s infatuation; while the subject may be of a childhood story, “Zezé” is sound-wise one of the most mature songs on the album. Jazz and swing genres suit IU’s more delicate vocals well and she seems to agree, considering the musical influences of Modern Times and her most recent release from Infinite Challenge.
Title track “23” is another pop song with a jazzy flair, but plays with a combination of heavily layered piano, drums, and strings and IU’s vocals – at times innocent, other times scathing – to give the song a frenetic feel. While the melody is complex and an interesting listen, what makes “23” memorable are the lyrics. There’s not really any other interpretation other than what is literal when IU sings,
I, yes, like now for sure
No, frankly I wanna give up
Oh right, I want to be in love
No, I’d rather make money
IU’s “23” lyrics full of Cheshire Cat contradictions directly address the recent online hate comments that surfaced after news of her relationship with singer Jang Jiha broke. Accused of slyly hiding behind an innocent image to escape her past scandals scot-free, IU doesn’t aggressively bite back at netizens, choosing instead to set them in her shoes. The indecisiveness with which she lists opposing choices throughout the song flow into a chorus in which she struggles to choose just one quality or facet to her identity. The honesty of the lyrics exposes the hypocrisy of her critics, who are just as indecisive and guilty of pretense at times as she. Ultimately, IU uses “23” to comment on the unrealistic black and white standards she is judged against, and the futility of trying to follow such a narrow image. “I will live silently as death,” she resolves, before correcting, “No, I will turn everything inside out.”
“Shower” slows down the tempo, switching gears from the jazz stylings of the previous songs to a stripped down, acoustic ballad. The composition was originally penned by IU on Infinite Challenge, though the song ended up not being used for the show’s music festival. “Shower” features a simple guitar accompaniment and an air of nostalgia to the lyrics that allow IU’s voice to take the spotlight. The slight overlap of verses in the pre-chorus allows the softly sung lines to melt into each other. The harmonica that makes an appearance in the instrumental track adds a folksy quality to “Shower,” making for a lovely listen.No stranger to collaborations, IU brings in Zion T. for “Red Queen” for a return to the jazz and swing sound dominating CHAT-SHIRE. It’s an uptempo piece with echoey drums and piano synths, and while worth a listen, falls short of the admittedly higher expectations reserved for such a duet. “Red Queen” lacks much actual interaction between the artists – Zion T.’s vocals are nearly absent for the first half of the song, and his own presence in the song feel somewhat detached and separate from IU’s. Zion T.’s verses in “Red Queen” are backed by his own vocals, but it would have been nice to hear IU engage or ad-lib a little into his verses much like he does towards the very end of the song. Overall, a good song, but “Red Queen” had more potential than what was delivered.
Back to the ballads — fans of IU will recognize “Knee” as the song IU released as a gift for fans last year in December. While the original version featured IU accompanied by guitar, the CHAT-SHIRE version of “Knee” makes use of a piano to accentuate her emotional vocals. The lyrics speak of a quiet longing for a sort of home, whether a person or a place, from the past.
Closing the album, “Glasses” picks up the pace, if just, as the most compositionally interesting on CHAT-SHIRE. What begins as a jaunty tune suddenly changes course around the one minute mark and again a minute later, each utilizing a different tempo and accompanying instruments as if bookmarking between sections of the song. Interesting sounds, such as hollow twangs from plucked strings or the repeated ringing of a piano’s high notes punctate the song. Lyrically, the now matured IU refuses to wear her glasses, using the spectacles as a metaphor for the unpleasant realizations of life that come from growing up. Rather than accept the knowledge, part of her belatedly wishes for her life before the journey down the rabbit hole, having now seen and experienced the reality of her and other’s flaws.
Releasing a successor to Modern Times was undoubtedly difficult, and that fact in itself is praise for IU’s growing maturity as an artist. CHAT-SHIRE doesn’t fall short of the mark – while the album is not perfect, it offers enough cohesion and confidence in the tracklist to cement itself as a solid mini album and comeback by IU. What sets CHAT-SHIRE apart from previous releases is the personal quality of many of the songs this time around. Though IU has always been involved in both songwriting and composition, something about the collective release this time around feels more honest and closer to the heart. Most likely if the album had solely been seven tracks entirely of unapologetic sass or sentimental longing, CHAT-SHIRE would have been significantly less effective. In actuality, IU spends the tracklist surging forwards with confidence and tongue-in-cheek attitude but also looking back with the kind of regret and unsureness that come inevitably with age. It’s the narrative of conflicting emotions and newfound declarations of identity and desire packaged in the sleek songs of CHAT-SHIRE that characterize IU, sly Cheshire cat or Alice aside, as a developing artist.