When Pentagon began releasing teaser images for their 11th mini album Love or Take, there was a special twist. Each photograph was meticulously duplicated in a manhwa-style drawing. It was a fun and eye-catching marketing strategy, but certainly raised questions about how exactly a manhwa concept would work when it came to the actual album.
Well, Love or Take is here and it’s a delightfully spot-on and inventive homage to manhwa, specifically the romantic genre. Though, it would be a lie to say it isn’t a disappointment that the manhwa concept doesn’t show up in a stronger visual way in the finished product. This is especially true regarding the MV for title track “Do or Not”. When your album has such a clear and compelling design, it is important to capitalize on that as much as possible. The MV for “Do or Not” is plenty of fun, but because it contains no hint of the manhwa concept, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, the way Love or Take manages to distill and communicate the mood of a romantic manhwa through music is nothing short of astonishing. The album is the soundtrack to a webtoon-based romantic comedy drama that hasn’t yet been made, but definitely should be. Love or Take is a brilliant interpretation of a unique inspiration, not to mention a shot of pure pop joy.
One of the most consistent and successful aspects of Love or Take is the regular contrasting of smooth and staccato rhythms. The chorus of “1+1” is a perfect example of this. The bulk of the refrain is bouncy, but each line closes with a silky vocal flourish. The rest of the song follows suit. A tapping beat and occasional enthusiastic raps add energy to the otherwise calmly melodic track. Lyrically, “1+1” is a pretty standard declaration of devotion from Pentagon to their crush. The song is a solid b-side, fitting perfectly into the album’s sweetly romantic tone, but isn’t exactly a standout.
On the other hand, “10s and” might just be the best track on Love or Take. The opening 15 seconds of the song, which are also the first moments of the whole album, are a symphony of synth pop perfection. Soft electronic melodic strains whirl into listener’s ears as Kino counts you down into the candy-colored world of Love or Take.
The rest of the song doesn’t let down its stellar start. Like “1+1”, “10s and” includes a compelling mixture of staccato and smooth musical elements. In this case though, the combination fully flourishes thanks to the overall sonic excellence of the song and unique details which pleasantly surprise. For instance, the counting motif continues and is integrated into the track in a rhythmically fun way, while Hui makes his vocal presence known through both his powerful belt and lilting falsetto.
The lyrics of “10s and” revolve around a simple yet charming romantic metaphor. Pentagon draw a parallel between returning to a previously lost beloved and the process of literally walking towards them:
Once again, once again, once again
Step by step, step by step
I’m almost there, just three seconds before reaching you
Three two one zero
Come to me forever, you are still beautiful
One two three four five six seven eight nine
I just want to go to you, I’ll go to you forever
“10s and” is undeniably repetitive, but honestly, that’s part of its charm. The only real criticism that can leveled against the track is that like much of Love or Take, there’s something excessively male about it. After all, who are Pentagon to assume that their former love wants them to walk over? When you’re telling a love story from the point of view of only one participant, the perspective can feel unbalanced.
That rickety feeling is only increased by the incredibly gendered tropes inherent to manhwa romance, tropes that Pentagon completely embrace in Love or Take. Pentagon don’t spin into fully toxic lyrical territory in the album, but it would have been nice to see them approach the manhwa romance genre in a slightly less stereotypical way.
That being said, if the addictively sparkling “10s and” isn’t enough to convince some production company to immediately hire Pentagon to create the theme song for a youthful romantic comedy show, then nothing will.
Unfortunately, not all of Love or Take is so engaging. The album’s weakest track — “Sing-a-song” — has a grating quality that is thankfully absent from the rest of the album. There’s just a lot of vaguely off-tune yelling, and the best thing that can be said about the non-singing, dominantly electronic instrumental chorus is that it is on-trend. The first pre-chorus, with its hazy soundscape and intriguing melodies, hints at a more interesting track hiding in the shadows of “Sing-a-song”. Sadly, that potential never steps into the light.
“That’s Me” also puts an alternate version of itself on brief display. The opening seconds of the song are filled with a jazzy sample that has an attractively sophisticated vibe. Then Wooseok‘s guttural voice and a bold bass line jump in and the song swerves into another universe. Luckily though, the track which “That’s Me” turns out to be is every bit as interesting as its starting strains, just in a completely different way.
If Love or Take is the soundtrack to a romantic comedy world, “That’s Me” is the theme song for a bad boy primary or secondary lead. It’s a delightfully silly track, with a thumping, made-for-dancing beat that contrasts nicely with Pentagon’s silky vocals. The song also includes lyrics like “I’m a super hot, call me funky winky boy, that’s me”. Really, what’s not to adore?
“That’s Me” is one of several songs on Love or Take that takes a step back from full reliance on electronic production to include rock instrumentation. In “That’s Me”, the rock touches exist alongside electronic sounds, but in “Baby I Love You” and “Do or Not”, they dominate.
“Baby I Love You” is the milder of the two. The song sits in a comfortably calm musical arena, with smooth vocals and guitar taking up most of the track’s sonic space, although a slow yet steady staccato drum beat lends the song momentum.
It is worth noting that “Baby I Love You” has the most mature vibe out of all the tracks on Love or Take, which is on the whole a distinctly not-sexual album. Love or Take is all about angsty yet squeaky clean youthful romance. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, the album’s naïveté is a big part of its charm. Be that as it may, there is something refreshing about the inclusion of “Baby I Love You”, which conveys sensuality through Pentagon’s relaxedly confident line delivery, and through lyrics like this:
The night is lonely without you, the password is my birthday
Step into my house, woo, I popped a wine for you baby
Watch a movie and tomorrow, one more step baby
However, ”Baby I Love You” dances an occasionally perilous line between articulating Pentagon’s lust and emphasizing the importance of consent. A lyric like “Oh wait, let’s think a minute, no way, just try to like it” does not read well, particularly out of context. Overall though, the song does come down on the side of consent, with the message being that while Pentagon wildly desire the object of their passion, they are prepared to “wait until you come over to me” without any resentment.
As with many of the manhwa it imitates, “Baby I Love You” isn’t always comfortable, but it isn’t outright problematic. Like “10s and” though, this is a track that would have clearly benefited from the inclusion of Pentagon’s paramour’s perspective, or at least a more thoughtful lyrical approach.
Title track “Do or Not” represents the culmination of Love or Take’s pop-rock elements. The song uses its rock production to convey a charmingly retro and wholesomely rebellious mood. “Do or Not” perfectly captures the spirit of youthful frustration and yearning that the manhwa which are Love or Take’s inspiration center, examine, and glorify.
The song also feels like a return to the quirkily endearing charm of previous Pentagon hits like “Shine” and “Naughty Boy”, especially when you look at its fun choreography. It’s a style that suits both Pentagon and specifically Love or Take well. “Do or Not” can’t be faulted as an excellent title track.
Love or Take’s final song is a true bonus track in that it is not completely consistent with the album’s themes, especially musically. “Boy in Time” is a full-blown ballad and a solo track for Pentagon leader and recent military enlistee Hui. Still, the song actually does find a place within Love or Take’s romantic storyline as the heartfelt love song that might swell during a breakup, a remembrance, or a reunion.
The real life purpose of “Boy in Time” is no doubt to serve as a temporary farewell from Hui to fans as he embarks on his military service. The enlistment of any idol is an important event for their group and fandom, and Pentagon has already sent off eldest member Jinho. However, Hui holds an exceptionally significant position within Pentagon. He’s their leader, primary producer and songwriter, a main vocalist, and arguably the member of Pentagon best known by the general public.
It therefore feels fitting that in their last album completed prior to his enlistment, Pentagon carve out a space just for Hui to shine. In “Boy in Time”, Hui’s voice soars over basic orchestral instrumentation that is rightfully content to take a backseat to his singing. The song is simply sentimental, but it is delivered with skill and emotion by Hui, making it a moving testament to his talents as a vocalist, a writer, and a performer.
Some may dismiss Love or Take as straightforward bubblegum pop. In fact, what the album accomplishes is deceptively complicated and impressive. Though not without flaws, the album is full of joy, and it manages to capture the spirit of a visual medium through sound. Love or Take is a romantic manhwa come to sonic life.
Besides its own merits, the album is a good release for Pentagon to put out during this time in their career. The group is saying a temporary farewell to their leader, and preparing to be hit with a steady stream of enlistments for the next several years. It’s inevitably going to be a somewhat tumultuous time, but Love or Take is the kind of album that can provide a little solid ground. It’s an artistically memorable outing, and it’s achieving good commercial results, especially with title track “Do or Not” taking the top place on a Korean music chart, a first for the group.
Love or Take deserves the success it is getting. It’s a fun, inventive, and ambitious album that amplifies Pentagon’s strengths as a group, not least of which is the admirable songwriting of members Hui, Wooseok, and Kino. To be cute about it, Love or Take is a musical manhwa that hits nearly all the right notes.
(Los Angeles Review of Books, Korea Herald, Twitter, YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via Cube Entertainment)