After a number of singles released over the summer, SM Entertainment’s “Avengers of K-pop” SuperM are back with their first full-length album, Super One. A year on after they debuted with the polarising “Jopping”, SM have cranked up the hit-making machines to produce a hefty 15-track album, three tracks of which were released as singles: the energetic “100” and chic “Tiger Inside”, as well as new single “One”, which is a montage of two B-sides, “Infinity” and “Monster”. 

As expected of any SM project, the production quality is top-notch throughout, with refined catchy hooks and polished instrumentals forming a steady foundation. However, this glossy exterior fails to hide what is currently SuperM’s biggest weakness — the lack of a clear musical direction. On the surface, it seems like their concept is obvious — they are the “Avengers of K-pop” (or at least SM Entertainment), superhero-like figures who have assembled for the benefit of humanity. However, so far, what this has translated to musically has been limited to the typical superhero theme soundscape associated with Marvel soundtracks, characterized by prominent brass instruments over anthemic chord sequences. 

While referencing this style makes perfect sense for their title tracks, especially given their Marvel collaboration, it’s too much of a pastiche to use for the whole of a pop album, and as a fairly one-dimensional sound, provides little guidance for what the rest of that album should sound like. The solution SM have come up with, then, is to expand the superhero concept into generally uplifting, empowering and universally palatable pop music. On Super One, however, they unfortunately confuse uplifting pop with pop that is simply trendy, resulting in an imbalance that neglects the former.

As a result, Super One throws caution to the wind when it comes to a consistent musical style on its B-sides. It bowls to the listener pop hit after pop hit in an attempt to dazzle them, pulling from multiple tried-and-tested trends, and as such reads more like a greatest hits compilation than a cohesive piece of musical storytelling. While that produces plenty of individually enjoyable songs, it leaves listeners confused about the exact purpose of the album as a whole, and by extension the group itself.

The album’s first half packs punch after punch, with impactful songs that wow at first but soon become overwhelming. While energetic songs like “100” and “Tiger Inside” are perfectly fine on their own, Super One mishandles its pacing, inducing fatigue that sets in far too early for a 50-minute album; Baekhyun’s uber-high notes are jaw-droppingly good, but even they start to be a bit much once you’ve heard them three or four times into the same album. High-octane songs being SuperM’s main currency, the group don’t stop to take a proper breather until the eighth track, “Better Days”, although the reggae-inspired “Wish You Were Here” cools things down a little after the opening saga that is “One”, “Infinity” and “Monster”. As a result, these two songs end up being the most memorable out of a long list of B-sides. 

“Better Days” is a simple and sincere pop ballad that offers a positive outlook on the hardships currently facing the world. Musically, it’s refreshingly different to everything else on the album, though by no means ground-breaking; acoustic drums, pianos and guitars paint a relaxing background, which, combined with uplifting melodies, give the song a very John Mayer feel. It borders on cheesy, but on a song as wholesome as this, it works. 

Kai explained in a press conference that the songs on Super One bear a unified “message of hope”, which urges listeners to “come together as one to overcome [this difficult time]”. While it would be questionable to claim this about the lyrics on every song, it does come through clearly on (the all-English) “Better Days”:

So let me be your guiding light
In a new world with new problems, hold on tight
‘Cause no storm lasts forever (Ain’t that the truth?)
We’ll get through this together
I got you, so don’t lose you
You’re special, runs through you
We lost our old lives
I swear you’ll find a brand new you
We’ll rise up from the madness
Like a phoenix from the ashes

Meanwhile, “Wish You Were Here” is one of the strongest songs on the project, and an overlooked contender for title track. While “100”, “Tiger Inside” and “One” use purposely abrasive, intense instrumentation and powerful vocals to create a sense of heat and friction, “Wish You Were Here” is the opposite, using clean, muted sounds and smooth, soft melodies to create a refreshing coolness that, frankly, the album could do with more of. Its earworm of a hook and subtle melancholy would have made it the perfect complement to any one of the other title tracks, and in fact it probably has the most appeal to the average Western listener’s ear. 

Other highlights on the album include the playful “Dangerous Woman”, which opens with a beautiful acapella verse reminiscent of the breakdown in EXO’s “Tempo”, the cheerful “With You”, and the “One”-“Infinity”-“Monster” combo that starts off the album with a bang. Of these, “Infinity” is the strongest, though “One”, which shares its chorus, is similarly powerful.

The idea of combining two tracks into one was last used on Shinee’s “Sherlock”, which merged B-sides “Clue” and “Note” on an EP of the same name. While the Frankenstein operation was not quite as successful this time (“Clue” and “Note” were at least in the same key, while “Infinity” and “Monster” are not), “One” still makes its impact with an edgy style and powerful melodic chorus that effectively condenses SM’s boy group sound from the last five years into one three-and-a-half-minute song. 

“Infinity” sheds these awkward transitions and replaces the rest of the song with epic section after epic section – the intro, verse and prechorus work together flawlessly to build up tension into the pre-established chorus, creating a majestic sequence worthy of any Marvel movie. The transition between the end of “One” and the beginning of “Infinity” is especially awe-inspiring, with Mark repeating Lucas’ final lines in an explicit call and response rarely heard on SM albums. “Infinity” is perhaps their most successful attempt yet at putting a sound to their superhero concept; “One” may be good, but one wonders if “Infinity” alone could have been better.

Meanwhile, the weaker songs on this project stumble due to their recycling of overused Western pop elements and cheesy lyrics. SuperM has always targeted the Western market, so the use of English lyrics and a more radio-friendly sound are not surprising. However, songs like “Big Chance” and “Line ‘Em Up” are so radio-friendly that they sound like they were plucked straight from the US chart, and from a few years ago at that. 

“Line ‘Em Up” pairs a redundant hook with exotic-sounding flutes and a reggaeton beat borrowed from chart hits like DJ Snake’s “Taki Taki”. Similarly, “Big Chance” relies on production so basic that it’s now more often heard on stock music sites like PremiumBeat than on actual songs. That in itself doesn’t make it unenjoyable, but pop tropes don’t tend to make their way into stock music until they’ve been fully done to death in the charts and have therefore outstayed their welcome in contemporary pop. 

The song is further hampered by English lyrics that, while they may have been written with complete sincerity by the original lyricist, sound uncomfortably out of place being put in the mouths of Korean singers that almost definitely do not use this kind of language or have these kinds of love stories to draw from (probably):

You got your mother’s eyes and your daddy’s temper
But I never mind being bitten by ya’
We almost rolled the dice back in last December
Then we thought twice, but now I think about ya’

The remainder of the album offers a mix of trendy pop and RnB in songs such as “Drip”, “So Long” and “Step Up”. While they are mostly harmless in and of themselves, they are also forgettable, sandwiched between more memorable checkpoints. The album as a whole centres around extremely simple melodic hooks that are laid over snappy electronic beats. While the better ones shine, such as on “Wish You Were Here”, the weaker ones are so basic that they are almost patronising, such as on “Drip” and “Line ‘Em Up”; these could easily have been cut to the benefit of the album’s overall pop prowess.

All in all, Super One is a collection of mostly decent to great pop songs, but as an album, a 50-minute session of focused listening, it struggles to tell a cohesive musical story or pinpoint exactly what differentiates SuperM from its parent groups. While there are a number of highlights, in the end only a few songs, such as “Better Days” and “Infinity” (and by extension “One”), follow through on their goal of being genuinely uplifting and empowering in both their lyrics and composition. 

The trio of energetic but incongruous title tracks, combined with B-sides that vie for attention with similar levels of energy, pull the album and SuperM’s musical concept in different directions, creating a jumble of styles that are noticeably different yet confusingly similar. “100” lacked general pop appeal but was at least consistent with the futuristic, action-inspired style of “Jopping”; the new direction with “Tiger Inside” then added a secondary, contrasting concept built on traditional Korean culture; finally, “One” added its two cents as essentially an amalgamation of classic SM boy group sounds. 

An album’s title tracks should spearhead the entire project, and while they don’t have to be the best songs on the album, they should accurately represent who and where they are as artists right now. The fact that SM decided on not one or two, but three (four considering “One” is a mashup) songs to represent this era of SuperM is an indicator that they are still unsure about what musical direction the group should take, what cards to play, and so are playing it safe with multiple styles, putting down everything they have and exploring every possibility. 

While the current overall result feels somewhat chaotic, they have enough good cards in their hands to stumble across at least a few winners, as they appear to have with the rousing “Infinity”, uplifting “Better Days” and graceful “Wish You Were Here”. Once they identify and focus down on these sweet spots, prying open a niche that belongs only to SuperM, then — finally — we might have the genuine supergroup that we hoped for on our hands.

(YouTube [1]. Lyrics via Genius.)