It is a truth universally acknowledged that most debut songs age poorly. Here’s looking at you, “Girls Girls Girls”. At their best, debuts are kitschy but endearing train wrecks that fans can revisit with a knowing smile. At their worst, they are flaming messes best buried under heaps of present-day dance practices.
Not so for Winner’s “Empty”, released six years ago this month. Full of aching vocals and gritty raps, “Empty” has aged like fine wine. Its enormous appeal is actually more impressive with the benefit of hindsight. Winner could have easily rested on their brilliantly moody laurels, sticking to the concept that so successfully launched their career. Instead, they have consistently experimented and stretched themselves, eventually carving out a niche with playful hype songs like “Really Really” and “Ah Yeah”.
Look to Winner’s b-sides though, and you will find that the theatrical yearning of their debut hasn’t gone anywhere. It is in fact one of the group’s most common motifs. But repetition has not dulled its impact. Instead, a healthy dose of melodrama has frequently led to some of Winner’s most enthralling lyrical and musical content.
Besides “Empty”, Winner’s debut album 2014 S/S is home to a number of delightfully dramatic tracks. One of the most distinctive is “Love is a Lie”. On first listen, the song seems cheerful. A bouncy beat backs energetic raps from Mino and Seunghoon, while the group’s vocalists deliver sweet melodies. However, a quick glance at the lyrics tell a different story:
I tell an absolute lie
“I still meet up with her
She only knows me, and I feel the same way”
I tell lies to my friends and people around me
Devastated by a breakup, Winner are coping by pretending to still be in the relationship. Within this context, the bright sound of “Love is a Lie” becomes wildly appropriate, mirroring Winner’s deception. When the lies fall apart and Winner end up spilling the truth, the song again reflects the lyric’s narrative by inserting a snippet of Mino exaggeratedly crying into its backing production. “Love is a Lie” is a theatrical lament with a sense of humor. It is also a prime example of a well-conceived story and melody pairing.
Another stellar b-side from 2014 S/S is “Tonight”. Lyrically, the song is a fairly standard “I miss you” track. What elevates it is its musicality. From start to finish, “Tonight” is wonderfully, unabashedly cheesy. It opens with a rhythmic spoken word exchange between Mino and Seunghoon. From then on, it is one jazzy slow riff after another, with vocalists Jinwoo, Seungyoon and Taehyun at full croon. Then, just when you think it can’t get better, they bring in a saxophone for the final chorus. Perfection. “Tonight” feels refreshingly self-aware about the melodramatic absurdity of its subject matter, and that makes it a pleasure to spend three and a half minutes with.
After 2014 S/S, it would be nearly eighteen months before Winner returned with Exit: E. The album is only five tracks long, but packed with treasures. One is the melancholic Mino and Taehyun duet “Pricked”.
The song’s simple, rock-influenced instrumentation allows Mino and Taehyun’s contrasting tones to take center stage. Mino sings with raspy conviction, while Taehyun’s voice is airy and smooth as glass. It is a combination perfectly suited to conveying the impossible longing that fills “Pricked”. As a cherry on top, Taehyun unleashes his falsetto in the final chorus, creating a goose bump-inducing musical high. The previously mentioned b-sides attest to Winner’s ability to meld wit with melodrama. “Pricked” proves that when they choose to dig into their feelings earnestly, they can pack a serious emotional punch.
The next few years would be full of ups and downs for Winner. Shortly after Exit: E, Taehyun officially left the group, depriving them of a key vocalist and songwriter. Uncowed, Winner marched on, reaching new heights of popularity with the single albums Fate Number For and Our Twenty For.
2018 marked the release of their second full album, Everyd4y. Everyd4y has a whole cluster of excellent moody songs towards the back of its track list. “For” is a standout. A soft acoustic guitar accompanies the members as they plead with their love, asking them why they are so willing to walk away:
For you, for you, for you, for you
Am I only worth this much?
The song is a superb showcase for all four members’ vocals. Seungyoon shines most of all, demonstrating astounding control as he flips between deep hollers and lilting high notes with ease. Filled with soft yearning, “For” is lovely. Best of all, it sticks the landing, taking a brilliantly bitter last-minute turn:
Seeing your expressionless face, my mind becomes clear
My body, that shook as though it was about to meet death, already becomes calm
For me, for me, for me, for me, too
You were only worth this much
Winner’s next venture was the mini album We. This time, they took a break from pining after lost love. In “Mola”, Winner instead turn their melodramatic gaze on that most torturous of figurative places, the friend zone. The kinetic energy of the song captures the frustration of their situation.
Winner’s dark sense of humor is back in full force, as they scatter wordplay and drop deadpan one-liners throughout their exasperated pleas. The driving force of “Mola” makes it a fabulous performance piece for Winner, as they’ve demonstrated at numerous concerts. This song proves that theatrical anguish doesn’t always have to be a downer. It can also be high-energy and, against all odds, good fun.
For their next release, Cross, Winner promoted a title track filled with daring drama. Presumably in the interest of balance, Cross’ other songs are on the brighter side of the group’s musical spectrum. The next notable b-side trip down melancholy lane would have to wait.
As if making up for lost time, 2020’s Remember delivered numerous moody anthems. “Dduk” and “Teaser” are both excellent, but nothing can top “My bad”. The song is a stunning blend of restrained instrumentation, vocal brilliance, and cutting nihilism. Its lyrics read like the inner monologue of a homme fatale. Even as Winner own their many mistakes, they forfeit the fight to change their ways without ever starting it. All that fills their heart is detachment:
How many times do I have to say it for you to know it’s all my fault
Yeah My bad (I know I know)
My bad (I know it’s my bad)
At your reddened face I become numb to it
These are gentleman that do not know how to make a proper apology. “My bad” is a fitting temporary culmination for Winner’s melodramatic musical tendencies. Sonically stunning and lyrically inventive in equal measure, it is a sophisticated tour de force.
Melodrama is not a genre known for versatility. Yet despite returning to it over and over, Winner have consistently found new shades and depths to explore. This is particularly admirable when you consider that the members are responsible for the vast majority of their own songwriting. Full of innovation and punctuated by moments of musical magic, the dramatic side of Winner’s discography is a gem.
Both Mino and Seungyoon are planning solo releases for this fall. However, the next full group venture is likely some ways away, given that Jinwoo and Seunghoon are currently enlisted. That makes now a great time to dive into the world of Winner’s wonderfully theatrical b-sides. Just don’t be surprised if you start feeling a little more melodramatic than usual.