The conclusion to Stray Kids Clé series, Clé: Levanter, is an interesting release, and one that certainly shows Stray Kids maturing not only as artists, but as people. The shift in priorities and attitude that occurs as the EP progresses is easy to write off in favor of focusing on “Levanter” and “Double Knot” alone. Clé: Levanter is a mini that understands and embraces the fact that anger, no matter how righteous, is unsustainable in the long term.

Clé: Levanter opens with “STOP”, a defiant track as Stray Kids proclaim that they are willing to risk failure in order to follow their own paths. It’s a track that’s grimy and dark, driven heavily by staccato percussion and synths. It is jittery and haphazard in a particularly deliberate manner; they’re breaking the rules to follow their desires, of course the rules of clean, polished instrumentation have been tossed as well. The most striking aspect, though, is that while the vocals are indeed angry, the anger is mixed with resignation, as if they’re tired of explaining their desire to break from the mold.

In “Double Knot” this resigned anger is doubled-down. While “STOP” is blatant and loud, “Double Knot” is a quiet seething rage. The synths and brass are toned down in favor of a plethora of hi-hats and a drumline that always feels off-kilter, again clearly intentional. The band themselves shine, interjecting a stunning amount of bitterness as they prepare to face whatever comes, with no plans and no concern for consequences. Sadly, the track is ruined by a warping synth that sounds like what spinning helicopter blades look like. It’s extremely obnoxious and dominates the track, which is the least of its sins.

A breather is given in the form “Levanter”, the title track. An anti-love song of the highest caliber, “Levanter” is a celebration of giving up a long-idealized love. The R&B track has Stray Kids rejoicing in the feeling of living completely for themselves after spending a great deal of time chasing a girl. While continuing the staccato production, here it’s gentled by a guitar and more melodic composition. This highlights the utter relief Stray Kids feels upon abandoning their previous goals and allowing themselves to just be for a moment. 

A 180° comes in “Booster”. Here, Stray Kids are preparing to move at their pace, which is apparently full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. It’s a track that embodies the need to just go as fast as you can; no plan, no route, not even a destination. Like the earlier tracks, it’s chaotic and noisy, but it lacks the deliberateness of “STOP” and “Double Knot”. Instead, synths, bass, and vocals all run over each other, with none having a distinct enough hook to anchor the track as a whole. 

Next is “Astronaut”, which is where Clé: Levanter starts to drag. Ironically, it has the stickiest groove on the EP, with a vintage 70s flair to it. The rapid rapping played over a chill instrumentation with pan flutes is a compelling juxtaposition. “Astronaut” is joyful and light, taking the same subject matter of Stray Kids going where they want, no matter what, but framing it as a fun adventure rather than a rebellion. Rage and resentment are replaced with hope and excitement. However, even with the tone shift, this is where Clé: Levanter starts to feel like a one-trick pony, after five songs of nothing but forging their own paths in life.

Thankfully, “Sunshine” comes at just the right point. Whereas Stray Kids are usually a group that exemplifies motion, “Sunshine” is an ode to holding still. Sometimes, you just need to pause and enjoy the sunshine, despite the world spinning around you. The relaxing instrumentation drops the BPM from the prior songs, instead using a more stripped-down construction of piano synths and slow drumbeat, with occasional extra tones tossed in for flavor. Unfortunately, there’s a definite sourness to the production, and the melody is not strong enough to support such sparse instrumentation. 

Closing out Clé: Levanter is “You Can STAY”. Easily the album standout, “You Can STAY” is warm and inviting, a pleasant meld of some well-restrained electronic synths, softer piano,  and thrumming percussion. Yet what really makes it click is Stray Kids themselves. The vocals here are lush and honeyed, infused with an openness that nearly defies description. It’s a piece of gratitude and reimbursement, as the members thank those who supported them as they struggled to find their way and easily offer that support back to others. In a world that often feels isolating, “You Can STAY” is a reminder that you are not alone.

However, dragging Clé: Levanter down is that it reminds me quite a bit of It’z Icy in that the production renders the finished product nearly unlistenable. Thankfully lacking the sheer volume of that EP, Clé: Levanter makes up for that with some truly horrific clipping. Basically, the way the audio files were altered during the post-production created distortion on the finished products that can be heard with any half-decent pair of headphones.

This range explains smaller issues like the tinny ringing on “Astronaut” or the buzzing cacophony of “Booster”, and is likely the explanation for the sourness of “Sunshine”. But it also can be heard on the pitchy whine that pops up on “Levanter”. The worst casualties, though, are the opening tracks, whose warped squelching can literally induce headaches and nausea. Moreover, this happening again feels more like a feature than a bug. I’m genuinely concerned that as JYP Entertainment moves into the new decade, they’re going to keep producing albums that sound great, provided you don’t use headphones.

Clé: Levanter is a fitting conclusion to this series, as it shows Stray Kids letting go of their anger as they go where life leads them. They are instead finding the same paths now filled with joy and excitement, and having matured enough offer shelter and advice to others just starting out. Tragically, it is severely undercut by the atrocious audio production.

(Images via JYP Entertainment, YouTube)