Much anticipation was built around Loona’s first comeback this year. Leader Haseul finally returns after a prolonged hiatus, marking the group’s return as 12 members in almost two years. Their previous album, 12:00, debuted on the Billboard 200 Chart, and Ryan S.Jhun, known for his works with many SM artists (Shinee, Exo, Red Velvet, NCT127), takes the helm in producing the majority of the tracks in the album.

Unfortunately, this is where things go awry. Loona’s fourth mini-album, &, follows the same ills and formula as its predecessor—a hodgepodge of musical influences in less than 20 minutes.

The album opens with an eerie space intro building up to the title track, “PTT (Paint the Town)”. It’s the group’s battle anthem, complete with the use of Indian musical influences like the tabla and the Indian flute (which closely identifies with the been but is played like the taepyeongso).

“WOW” and “Be Honest”, on the other hand, steer away from the bombastic quality of “PTT (Paint the Town)”. “WOW” shares an undeniable resemblance with “Wow Thing”, SM Station’s side project in 2018, from the new jack swing arrangement to the tight harmonizations. “Be Honest” is Loona’s take on retro with a bumping baritone sax bassline, which was a trend among girl groups from 2014 to 2015. Interestingly, the first three tracks all involve Ryan S. Jhun.

Meanwhile, “Dance on My Own”, “A Different Night”, and “U R” fall on the more sentimental side. Following the international success of “Star” from 12:00, Loona followed with a new full English track with “Dance on My Own”. It’s an acoustic R&B ballad that beautifully highlights Loona’s beautiful vocals, but unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of build-up and a generic arrangement. “A Different Night” is a classic emotional ballad, while “U R” is a bliss ballad in disguise with hints of jazz.

Even lyrically, Loona’s album can be sliced in half. The first three tracks boast about the girls’ confidence, while the second half alludes to farewells and new beginnings. Both “PTT” and “WOW” show the thoughts of the group wanting to dominate the world, while “Be Honest” expresses their boldness towards their lover. This confidence decreases beginning with “Dance on My Own” and sinks in “A Different Night”. Feeling lonely, Loona looks to their fans, Orbits, which “U R” is reminiscent of “Star” from their 12:00 album.

You shined on me when I couldn’t break free
You are my starlight, you are, you are
In the endless night sky like the Milky Way
Starlight that shines, you are, you are, you are

Speaking of endings and new beginnings, Loona has been using several Latin phrases since the release of their teaser: “Citius, altius, fortius”, “Acta est fabula, plaudite”, and “A deo vocatus rite paratus”. “Citius, altius, fortius” translates to “faster, higher, stronger”, a familiar motto of the Olympic Games. “Acta est fabula, plaudite” (the drama has ended, applaud) is Emperor Augustus’ closing line in the play “The Twelve Caesars”. “A deo vocatus rite paratus” (a preparation having been called rightly by god) is from Richard Strauss’s orchestral piece, “Don Quixote”.

Tying these with the universe which Blockberry Creative has built since Loona’s inception, “&”, can either be a continuation (“and”) and an “end”. Now back as a full group of 12 and riding on to their fame with international audiences, the girls are more determined than ever to raise the bar as a performance girl group. On the flip side, the album could signify the end of the current Loonaverse to make way for a new one. The ampersand looks like a disconnected Mobius strip, which coincides with the ending scene of Kim Lip and JinSoul. Fans might also notice that Loona’s logo is similar to that of the moon in Odd Eye Circle’s “Girl Front”, which could be a new moon. 

The lore is an Easter egg hunt treat for Orbits, but one could only hope that the album’s name also means the latter—putting an end to Loona’s indistinctive musical identity. The diversity in genres can arguably be intentional to cater to international audiences, but it feels a lot like listening to two different artists and albums. Even from their past releases, Loona seems to more cohesive in approaching the second half of their album. It is as the listeners can glide from one track to another. Loona does a good job going beyond the usual “girl crush” concept, but they need to regroup fast and establish a sound that is uniquely theirs.

(Youtube [1][2]. Loona’s Daum Cafe. Billboard. Lyrics via Images via Blockberry Creative)