Globally, 2021 has been a trying year for the entertainment and arts scene. This is no exception for K-pop, as the industry continues to grapple with a global pandemic that seems to never end. Amid this backdrop, ONF have had their busiest year yet. Following the rousing summer anthem “Popping” in August, Goosebumps marks ONF’s fourth album and comeback this year. The group’s especially jam-packed release schedule all culminated in an announcement released just last month — when ONF made national news as the first idol group who will serve their military enlistments together before 2021 ends.

A key factor that makes ONF stand out is their partnership with music production powerhouse Monotree, founded by three former Sweetune producers, whose works are expansive and respected across several generations of K-pop. Every song in the group’s discography is created by the studio, and a musical partnership so fiercely loyal is rare in K-pop. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that any discussion of ONF‘s music is unanimous with an acknowledgement of Monotree’s role in bringing their music to life, and the payoff of this long-standing partnership is immense. The special synergy between the two has pushed the other to continuously evolve, creating a consistent yet sophisticated sound that is present across ONF’s discography. These are albums clearly made with love, and so they are difficult to not love. Thus, when approached with a looming enlistment hiatus, there is particular interest in how this will affect the sound of their last album.

Contrary to expectations, Goosebumps may just be the group’s ambitious album to date. Rather than leaving with the classic subdued ballad and ode to fans like most groups, ONF remain consistent with their efforts to walk their own path and leave with a resounding bang. Goosebumps is not just a gift designed for their fans, but will likely attract new listeners and fans for the group because it is musically interesting. Each of the five tracks also hold their own, and just one listen is all it takes to remember the distinct character and sound of each. Yet, the album still embraces its identity as a milestone album for the group as their last in a while. It is personal and sentimental, in particular through plenty of lyric references to love and time that allude to the challenging and uncertain times that lie ahead for both ONF and their fans. The goodbye is also evidently emotionally for producers at Monotree who have undoubtedly grown alongside the group through all these years. Fittingly, several of Goosebumps’ tracks draw narrative and musical parallels to ONF’s debut album ON/OFF, where it all began. More than ever, MK and Wyatt also played a significant role in the lyric making and composition process.

The album opens with the title track “Goosebumps”, which can be described as nothing less than an enigma. Hyojin delivers the track’s only mid-tempo part with reliable gusto, and the echos and top-line heavy approach gives this first prechorus a fleeting and dreamy feeling of being suspended in air. From there, the song allows itself to catch small breaths, but it never truly takes another break from its hypnotising and exhilarating energy. The droning quality of the synths gives the song a mysterious and brooding atmosphere, but the producers are careful not to let the song slip into a dull stagnancy.

Rather than milking one big hook, the song’s multiple hooks come in small but intentional doses — be it the brass at the chorus, its two recurring synthlines, the fervent (and fun) repetition of “goose, goose, goose, goose”, the distorted ascending line at “lights on, lights on, lights on” or the bridge’s faultlessly catchy speed-chanting. Yet, where many of their contemporary peers may have failed to get right, “Goosebumps” does not compromise on rich amounts of melody for hooks and drops. In fact, the track is reminiscent of second and third generation K-pop at some parts, and K-pop fans of older boy groups such as Vixx, Infinite and SHINee are likely to revel in the song’s most dramatic singing moments.

If there are two main elements holding all of ONF’s 2021 title tracks together, they would be the presence of funk in the instrumentals and the use of unison singing parts. “Goosebumps” exploits the latter to no end here, and a third of the song is sang altogether. Initially teasing a mysterious and brooding sound, the song gradually reveals its groove and energy through a series of surprises in its structure, all before it lets loose in celebratory outburst by the end. It’s a ton of unabashed fun, and ONF power through the song as an united front. In a way, ONF have come full circle since the start of the year with their smash hit “Beautiful Beautiful”. “Goosebumps” is just as energetic and comforting, just presented in a quirkier and more experimental way.

With the sheer range of sounds, styles and structure-defying decisions the song sought out to include, “Goosebumps” is ONF’s most bold title track yet, perhaps even polarising on first listen. However, what ultimately makes the track work is both ONF and their producers’ understanding of where to be perfectionistic and calculated, and where to busk in the self-indulgence of an over-the-top pop song and not take itself too seriously. Performed and composed with a confidence and enthusiasm that demands attention from listeners, it’s hard not to at least be in awe of “Goosebumps” and have a little fun with it. It is a brilliant and exciting finale title track because it manages to subvert all expectations, while leaving plenty of room for anticipation of what’s to come.

The use of whistles in K-pop borders dangerously on overused and even frustrating. Fortunately, ONF’s “Whistle” doesn’t rely too heavily on it, instead focusing on the punchy and emotive parts of its chorus to drive it forward. While whistles chime in occasionally through the mid-tempo song, the otherwise straightforward and trendy-sounding song is allowed to pop by incorporating riveting synths, guitars and multiple rap verses that complement the sorrowful song about regret and entrapment. But the highlight of the song is its fantastical storyline. “Whistle” is sang from the perspective of a human cursed to become a cat because of their wrongdoings towards a person they love. Longing to hear the whistles that used to be their secret way of communicating ‘I miss you’, the person desires to be free from magic and be in the arms of their loved one again.

For all it’s “meow meow meows”, “Whistle” is surprisingly not the first ONF song about cats. Instead, it is the darker and mature counterpart to “Cat’s Waltz“, a dreamy and wonderous b-side from their debut album. The main motif of “Cat’s Waltz” is the bright eyes of a cat, which was written to represent the innocence of ONF as they enter the world of music. Instead of whistles, communication is done through the blinking of the cat’s eyes. While pop music doesn’t need to have the most creative or meaningful lyrics to be effective, well-written lyrics certainly makes for more engaged listening and an emotional connection. It is also testament to the care that was put into creating lyrics that are unique as opposed to merely being catchy. After all, telling a fantasy story in 3 minutes is a lot harder than it seems and “Whistle” does a competent job.

Opening with a sensual electrical guitar line, the album finds itself amping up the energy again with “Fat and Sugar“. Odd titles are a common occurrence in ONF’s albums and here, the track’s name aptly captures its quirks. The song’s hook comes in the form of the simple repetition of English lyrics: “I like bad things. Fat and sugar, fat and sugar. Whip me more”. While these frankly corny lyrics seem unlikely to work under any circumstance, it works seamlessly when paired with the instrumentation of a lush bassline and the return of the ear-catching guitar line at the start. Initially adopting a beat that is hip-hop influenced, the song slowly unravels new and surprising layers to its sound — with elements of punk, R&B and pop laced through the song along with dynamic vocal performances, generous harmonies and ad-libs. The jarring contrast between the members’ charismatic crooning, the playful and light-hearted lyrics and the sophisticated production makes “Fat and Sugar” not only a new sound for the group but quite the unexpected album highlight.

“When the times come, every time, every time. The fact that it turns to night is too bad. I’ll set my alarm a bit earlier. Why can’t time be caught? When a day becomes as long as year, I really think that would be good.

Lyrics of “Alarm” by ONF

Nonetheless, ONF’s strength in vocals gets the most noticeable spotlight in “Alarm“, which is a continuation of ONF’s first ever ballad “If We Dream“. Ballads are often filler tracks in K-pop albums. But at their best, they take listeners on a healing emotional journey that can take an album to the next level. “Alarm” is exemplerary in this regard, and it is a simple and moving display of stunning vocals from start to end. Not only does every member of ONF sound lush and smooth, but the harmony and choral parts are gratifyingly executed, allowing listeners to deeply immerse in the song’s emotions.

While the ability to harmonise is rarer in K-pop than it should be, ONF ease through the track’s challenging harmonies despite the particularly sharp and distinct tones of each member. In a group dominated by bright tenors, the group’s lower voices U and Wyatt also give a stand-out performance here, adding a grounded sense of calm to an already wistfully beautiful track. Again, the lyricists make use of narrative techniques to paint a story and emotion. Using an alarm as the central motif, ONF sing a sweet and regretful song about how our perception of time begins to warp because of our longing for more time with our loved ones.

Rounding up the album is “Show Must Go On“, a track that would find a comfortable spot in a playlist of K-pop songs inspired by epic, nostalgia-fuelled anime soundtracks. It is a tried and tested formula that works without fail, but especially so when considering the symbolic significance of the track as the last song on ONF’s discography for at least the next 18 months. The track harnesses the group’s signature style of lyrical romanticism to maximum effect here. When paired with the clichés of this genre like singalong “oh oh ohs” and an explosive and grand chorus, the result is appropriately heart-wrenching as it is hopeful. However, though deceivingly simple and straightforward, “Show Must Go On” is a far more complex song musically and narratively than initially meets the eye, with details making it a impactful finish to an already compelling mini album.

“The stars are lighting up that black drawing paper. Draw all my excitement on it. We continue to expand like the endless universe – It’s spreading even more at this moment.”

Lyrics of “Show Must Go On” by ONF

ONF’s individual vocal colours is a key part of their sound, and so their tracks rarely use copious autotune even solely for stylistic purposes. This makes the slightly robotic finish scattered around different parts of the vocal mixing in “Show Must Go On” saliant. Along with complementary amounts of reverb, echo and distortion, the track’s soundscape sounds like it exists in a separate universe and timeline from the rest of the album. Standing at 2 minutes 43 seconds, it is not only shorter than songs of its kind, but the average pop song. Yet, listeners are taken on quite a ride in this time, whiplashing between tempos alongside its unconventional song structure. Just as how ONF has been racing against time in 2021, the track is crafted to resemble an exciting run filled with eagerness and urgency, and there’s even an unexpected addition of a subtle siren sounding during the song’s climax. “Show Must Go On” starts as abruptly as it ends, not affording the listener any sense of closure. But its unsatisfying length and premature end eaving listeners wanting more is clever, symbolising that it is quite literally not yet the end for the group.

ONF’s continued growth in popularity and recognition is deservingly backed by a speckless discography that continues to evolve and blossom limitlessly. Balancing expectations and experimentation, Goosebumps marks the end of what has been nothing short of an incredible 2021 run for the group, and ONF have definitely emerged winners of this race. With the countless references to magic and fantasy in its lyrics, Goosebumps feels imaginative, expansive and otherworldedly, setting the bar for how groups can approach much-dreaded military enlistments with unity, conviction and pride.In the time that ONF will be away, their absence will certainly be felt by not only their most dedicated fans but the countless casual listeners they have earned solely through the power of a timeless discography. With Goosebumps, ONF pay a powerful tribute to their musical journey with their heads held high and an assured promise that it’s not ‘goodbye’, but ‘see you soon’.

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