Given the huge success of JYP Entertainment’s representative girl group, Twice, it may surprise casual listeners to know that, in the five years since their debut, the nine-membered group have only released one full-length Korean album. Their first effort, Twicetagram, was released in 2017, capitalising on their fast-rising popularity after the explosion of “Cheer Up”, and later “TT” and “Knock Knock”. It neatly summarised Twice’s image and concept at the time, which was one of bright, girlish youthfulness and, in JYP’s words, “healthiness”.

Over time, though, the members changed from teenage girls into mature, young women, and from last year their music and image began to reflect this. “Fancy”, “Feel Special”, and “More & More” showed off a more sophisticated, womanly style, which was mirrored on many of the B-sides on the three corresponding EPs. After teasing their development on these releases, Twice are finally ready to fully commit to this new style with the release of their long-awaited sophomore album, Eyes Wide Open. In doing so, they clearly define the second chapter of their careers, just like Twicetagram defined the first.

The 13-track album continues the narrative of growth and maturation first started by 2019’s Fancy You with more conviction and sophistication than ever before. Less busy instrumentals make space for their vocals to ring clearer, while a definitive shift away from blunt, overbearingly cheerful major chords allows more nuanced emotions to be painted.

This is perhaps clearest on the title track, “I Can’t Stop Me”. Instead of their usual uplifting chorus, it fully embraces its minor scale with a sharp, cutting chorus that is sung mostly by Jihyo and Nayeon. The instrumental is darker and more minimalistic than any other Twice title track yet: a synthwave-style bassline that rumbles on throughout most of the song forms their contribution to the ongoing, thriving 80s revival. Lyrically, the song describes a thrilling love, though its chorus could equally describe the thrill of performing on stage:

I’m surrounded by that spot, spot, spotlight
As it shines on me, I’m swept into the darkness
I see the end, I know it’s not right
I can’t stop me, can’t stop me
No, woah, woah
Right in front of me, this red, red, red line
Across from each other, you and I exchange glances
Wanna feel the thrilling highlight
I can’t stop me, can’t stop me
No, woah, woah-oh

While previous EPs like More & More flitted between a variety of Westernised pop styles in order to find a contemporary mature, feminine sound that fit the group, Eyes Wide Open ties its tracks together with a number of retro-pop references that are both on-trend and well-suited to Twice’s skillset. Aside from “I Can’t Stop Me”, “Up No More” and “Say Something” also remake classic 80s sounds to suit Twice’s sweet vocals, to impressively good effect. Together, these paint a very clear and viable path forward for Twice’s future sound. Both are glazed with a palpable nostalgia, created through convincingly authentic instrumentation and chords and melodies that effectively recall vague yesteryears.

In particular, “Say Something”’s clear reference to 80s Japanese city pop, brought back into relevance by the viral rediscovery of Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”, is a refreshingly different take on the retro revival that no other mainstream group has yet claimed for themselves. The only gripes I have are that it’s so authentic that it literally sounds like a rearrangement of “Plastic Love”, and that not putting it on a Japanese release seems like a real lost opportunity.

While these are the most obviously retro-inspired moments on the album, there’s still a nostalgic quality to many of the other songs. “Bring It Back” has a noughties R&B sensibility that, along with its unusual drop, makes it one of the most addictive songs on the project. The same goes for “Handle It”, which, despite being the quietest song on the album, is also the most sensual and alluring, with breathy, coy vocals crooned over a jazzy electric piano and acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, “Hell in Heaven” echoes this sensuality with glittering guitar harmonics, acoustic percussion and airy falsettos that bring out the best of Twice’s vocals.

Amongst these highlights, “Go Hard” sticks out, and not for a good reason. While it is an interesting and addictive song with a catchy drop, it differs so much from the usual Twice fare that it feels obviously borrowed from other “girl crush” groups, rather than a part of their own growth. The intense moombahton beat and claim that they “go hard” is so at odds with their current branding that it momentarily takes you out of the world built by the tracks before; the effect is like imagining Harry Potter challenging Draco Malfoy to a freestyle rap battle in the middle of third year. It’s a subtle (and unwelcome) reminder that the album is a commercial product, and that in this industry songs can be bought and sold for any group with about as much emotional investment as in a grocery shop.

The album also houses a sentimental, melancholic side, as well as more modern EDM production that is scattered between the album’s retro influences. “Do What We Like” and “Believer” offer uplifting melodies over fashion-mall beats, while “Depend On You” and “Behind The Mask” use echoing EDM ballad instrumentation. The former are a little flat and generic, though polished; “Depend On You” is enjoyable but forgettable, placed ambiguously near the end of the tracklist. “Behind The Mask” has a more epic, stadium-inspired sound, with dramatic flourishes that add punch to the emotional English lyrics of the chorus:

Behind the mask
Yeah who yeah
I wonder if you are smiling
Who yeah woo yeah
I wonder if you are crying
Let me ask in the mask
I’m lonely but if you are trying
Say yes woo yeah

Penned by Heize, and with a composing credit from Dua Lipa, “Behind The Mask” feels more authentic to Twice’s own experiences, especially with the anxiety-related hiatuses of Mina and Jeongyeon, and their vocal performance and emotional delivery make a corresponding impact. This, along with its placement at the end of the album, help “Behind The Mask” become much more memorable and compelling than it would be in any other context.

All in all, Eyes Wide Open brings us Twice at their most mature yet, with a crop of interesting songs that are backed up by solid hooks and refined production. In an industry where both stagnation and knee-jerk concept changes are all too common, one appreciates the patience with which JYP have allowed Twice to explore new ground, creating a gradual, natural transition from authentically youthful to authentically mature.

Differences in style are mostly covered by smart track ordering; the smooth, same-key transitions between “Believer” and “Queen” as well as “Shot Clock” and “Handle It” come to mind. It is possibly the most consistent Twice album yet; not only are there no obviously weak tracks, there is almost no hint of the cutesy style once synonymous with the group’s name. The closest is “Shot Clock”, which recalls tracks like “Touchdown” and “Stuck In My Head” with its marching band inspiration and chirpy vocal quips. Aside from being one of the more generic songs, its style is so in the minority on this album that it feels out of place; an ironic turn of the tides compared to Twicestagram.

If there is a criticism to be made, it’s that at times they risk confusing the act of making Twice’s sound more mature with making it more Western, or more like that of girl groups that already have a mature concept. More than a few songs, such as “Go Hard” and “Shot Clock”, could have been swapped with B-sides from neighbouring girl groups without anyone batting an eyelid. This is exacerbated by the fact that Twice’s relatively unique vocal tones are underused on some of these songs, with voices blending at times or just unidentifiable at others.

The project loses a touch of Twice’s signature joy and sincerity, the vibrance that gave them that all-ages appeal and set them apart pre-2019, and which they managed to retain on “Fancy” and “Feel Special” but lost with “More & More”. After that step back, “I Can’t Stop Me” is a step forward, but listening to Eyes Wide Open makes one wonder if it’s really possible for Twice to evolve their sound without emulating the trends of others. As a bastion of classic K-pop, one of the only top-level groups staying true to its essence, it would be a shame for them to lose themselves at this stage of their growth. Either way, we still have this album to enjoy in the meantime, and there is no doubt at least that Twice’s next five years will be as interesting as the last.

(YouTube [1][2]. Lyrics via Genius. Images via JYP Entertainment.)