What are we to think, when Taemin — one of K-pop’s finest dancers — releases an album called Never Gonna Dance Again?
Let’s face the facts: Taemin is quickly approaching enlistment age. To a star who has spent nearly half his life in the limelight, military service is a seismic lifestyle change. But even more importantly, there’s no way to predict the effect of a two-year hiatus on Taemin’s career. Will his fame fade? Will he never dance again?
At face value, Taemin’s latest album deals with themes of heartbreak and severed relationships. But given the context of his inevitable hiatus, Never Gonna Dance Again’s true message is vulnerability. Taemin explores his fear of obscurity, questions the value of fame, and reflects on his long career. The resulting album is a new artistic peak, revealing a breathtakingly honest side of Taemin while retaining so many of the idiosyncrasies that define his music.
“Criminal,” the title track, is a heavy, rich piece of music. As the crowning jewel of Taemin’s new album, “Criminal” conjures images of mahogany lacquer and full-bodied red wine. Taemin’s lithe vocals unfold against a lushly layered synthwave instrumental. The pre-chorus steadily ascends in one extended melodic line, providing a seamless transition to the understated but gorgeous chorus.
Somehow striking a perfect balance between the smoldering minimalism of “Move” and the slick pop smarts of “Press Your Number,” “Criminal” emerges as an exercise in beguiling restraint. The lyrics are just as captivating as the music. Taemin sings:
I don’t hate how your words make my feet entangled and dance
Cause I don’t want to deny the truth that it was destined to be you from the beginning
So elegant, a criminal who hurts me
It’s okay, you soothe me just to torture me again
“Criminal” can be understood in several ways: as a comparison of a cruel lover to a criminal, or even as a song about Stockholm syndrome. But neither of these interpretations dig quite deep enough. I’d like to suggest a third meaning: the criminal here is Fame. Taemin sings about his frustrations with Fame, confessing how his life is twisted around his celebrity. He both loves and hates Fame, unable to parse his contradictory emotions, unable to break out of this cycle. In fact, by performing his frustrations, Taemin quite literally perpetuates his own ties to Fame.
Similarly, in “Famous,” Taemin continues struggling with the idea of fame. Although this Japanese track was released last year, its message remains highly relevant to Never Gonna Dance Again. In “Famous,” Taemin juggles the joys and pains of his own fame:
Famous, I’m so fabulous
Famous, I’m so dangerous
Famous (So famous)
Drama of loneliness (So famous)
Watch me intensely, awakening with cheers
I still don’t know who I am
By juxtaposing “fabulous” with “dangerous,” Taemin builds his internal dilemma: do the benefits of fame and fortune outweigh the heavy emotional toll? Despite being known all over the globe, does Taemin even know himself?
Given all these fraught questions, the musical aspects of “Famous” are quite intriguing. The song is a roiling concoction of brisk bass and rhythm guitar. It is pure groove, a song brimming over with danceability. From a musical standpoint, “Famous” is classic Taemin. Yet this familiarity contrasts directly with the song’s lyrical themes of confusion. So even as Taemin questions the value of fame, “Famous” is also at civil war with itself.
In “Black Rose (ft. Kid Milli),” a sinister blend of hip-hop and darkly alluring melody, Taemin grapples with the aftermath of a breakup. To him, “the day becomes night and the night becomes day,” and he spends his days wishing to see his ex-lover again “in my dreams.”
“Black Rose” imagines a world where Taemin returns from his hiatus to find that his fame has all but evaporated, leaving him as devastated as the jilted lover in the lyrics. This nightmarish fantasy is further enhanced by “Black Rose”’s musical choices: waves of almost creepy harmonization, tart melodic rap courtesy of Kid Milli, and Taemin’s sinuous vocals.
“Strangers” is yet another distillation of Taemin’s fears. This song opens with hazy, drawn-out piano and a clean-cut melody. Subtle percussion provides a bit of kick to the pre-chorus, and the call-and-answer chorus is simple yet compelling. “Strangers” also harnesses footsteps as a sound effect; starting from quiet steps during the opening verse to ever-louder marching as the song progresses. In the lyrics, the reason for these footsteps becomes clear.
Like a mistake, our gazes met
But we know that we won’t hold onto each other
As if you didn’t know me, you pass by
Cause you and I are strangers with memories
The footsteps are the sound of Taemin’s ex-lover, who is now like a stranger to him, walking past him. This sad romance could allude to Taemin’s fear that someday, all those who once sang along to his songs and cheered at his concerts will view him as just another stranger walking down the street.
This same melancholy and nostalgia permeates the rest of his album, although the remaining songs aren’t nearly as compelling.
In “Waiting For,” a tango-influenced midtempo track, Taemin pleads with his lover to come see him again. Although the Habanera-esque piano loop is initially exciting, this song unfortunately soon becomes repetitive. “Waiting For” is a one-trick pony, with a very limited musical palette and little modulation.
“Clockwork” is just as dull as “Waiting For.” Featuring piano and a seesawing, buzzy electronic sample, “Clockwork” is yet another nostalgic song. Taemin sings, “You and I can’t turn back time,” lamenting the quiet end of a relationship. “Clockwork” does get the job done, but sticks firmly to cliches.
“Nemo” is even more forgettable. “Nemo” is another toned-down, piano-heavy midtempo song. Its only interesting element: Taemin sings of “running in circles, running in, running in… ” as he waits for his lover to return — a lovely exploration of his fear of becoming lonely. But without any interesting musical choices, “Nemo” is a rather drab affair.
At this point, Never Gonna Dance Again has fully delved into Taemin’s insecurities. But in “Just Me and You,” he sings:
You and I, ooh
Slowly with our fingertips, ooh
We just draw each other in the dark
Erase everything else in this messy world
So that only we remain
Taemin is retrospective here, using a simple love song to thank his fans for their years of support and dedication. Having run the gamut of his fears for the future, Taemin acknowledges the joys of his past.
“2 Kids” ends the album on a bittersweet note. No, “2 Kids” isn’t a musical masterpiece. During the chorus, Taemin’s distinctive voice gets smothered by distorted, compressed effects — squeezing what could’ve been a soaring song into a tinny, narrow sound.
But despite this flaw, “2 Kids” still hits all the right notes. He confesses, “We were just 2 kids, too young and dumb.” He hints at his 12 years as a K-pop star, referencing the days back when he was only 14 years old, a “young and dumb” child who had just debuted into a glossy world of music and dance.
It’s the perfect end to a stunningly honest album, an album that plays with both Taemin’s tried-and-true dance grooves and newer, more mellow musical territory. Never Gonna Dance Again is a little sad, a little sweet, a little sexy, and very, very vulnerable.
(YouTube. Lyrics via LyricsKpop. Images via SM Entertainment.)