It is an interesting time for the feted 3rd generation of K-pop. Whilst debates will always swirl over when this generation began, when it changed into the 4th, and so, so much more, we are clearly entering into the autumn of many 3rd generation groups’ careers, particularly with regard to boy groups. This is not to say that any boy group over two years old is irrelevant, doomed, or any other pessimistic word of your choosing, but rather that the landscape is definitely shifting.
As military enlistments are becoming more commonplace, and the 2ndgeneration come back from their own with blistering style and panache, many of these 3rd generation groups are now turning their attention to how to develop their own sounds into a sophisticated next level. Whether as a group like Monsta X, or through solo endeavours, like the GOT7 members, the game is on to understand the voice each group has, and how to elevate it.
Up10tion are the latest group to walk down this path with their latest release, Novella. After the summery vibes of last year’s Connection and the synth dance-pop of their single “Spin Off”, this album takes a much calmer, more sensitive approach, telling the stories of a finished relationship through various emotional moods. With minimal up-tempo beats and a lack of gimmickry of any kind, Up10tion have created a storyline that undoubtedly has poignancy, but unfortunately also lacks real excitement. It is a fine addition to their discography, but not particularly stand-out in the 3rd generation scene.
The title of Novella is indication enough that we are about to hear a story, a little vignette of a probably delicate nature. There are several moods running through this album; the jubilant happiness of “Give Love” and “Incredible”; the bittersweet sorrow and regret of “Crazy About You”, “Fall” and “Sad Ending”; and the slightly surprising bombast of “Pandora”. Given the title’s implication of a smaller scale, this is quite the range to pack in.
More than just this range, the structure of the tracklist is also slightly disarming. Rather than building either from sadness to happiness or the reverse, the songs actually oscillate back and forth between the two. “Crazy About You” follows “Give Love”, and “Fall” follows “Incredible”; the emotional road map is swerving in different directions.
This is not necessarily a weak point at all. Indeed, it could easily be read as a representation of how randomly intense emotions swing within us when we are in, and coming out of, relationships. Perhaps this novella is one of snapshots rather than a straight story. The lyrics of several tracks echo this interpretation. In “Crazy About You”, Hwanhee sings of the “shards of memories”, whilst “Fall” sees Xiao, Sunyoul, and Gyujin sing on similar themes.
I’m on a starlight that breaks according to my memories
I should just forget you again, let’s just forget, let’s just forget
Those times that have passed are brilliantly blown towards me
It’s like a dream that will be beautifully wiped out
In this chorus, there is a movement to these memories, a physical relationship to the person who has them that is not simple. They can be blown and broken by starlight. These are emotions and thoughts that live in a more nebulous space than the pages of a book, and so they do not inevitably have to occur in a linear fashion within the album itself.
There are other images and symbols that pepper throughout the album as well. The first verse and bridge of “Give Love” make ample use of freezing and heating as metaphors:
I, who was trapped in the ice and had my eyes closed
Was burnt by your touch
You melted the ice and opened my eyes
“Incredible” also has a setting of a “white snowy road” with evocations of snow-carpeted cities and the warmth of love melting a hardened heart. It is a neat touch to see these themes echo across songs, but of course, it isn’t anything new, nor is the chosen theme itself. Far less innovative than the imagery of dreams blowing in the air, the concept of ice as loneliness and heat as the warmth from love is unoriginal and ultimately uninspiring. With an overarching title like Novella, it feels like a slightly missed opportunity to get more ambiguous, or possibly even referential, with the themes here.
Much as the thematic side of Novella has its strengths amid unoriginality, so too does the music. Most of the songs here fit within quite a narrow range in terms of tempo, rarely straying far outside the middle range. “Give Love” and “Pandora” are the two most dance-oriented on the album, whilst the rest sit in the realm of soft rock power ballad. “Give Love” makes economic use of its house-esque piano bedrock, and the bold but rich bass guitars in the chorus add a great layering that allows the song to reach a climax subtly but effectively. Like its predecessor “Spin Off”, this track is streamlined and wastes none of its elements.
“Incredible” is the little brother of “Give Love”, with similar guitar stylings giving the same funk edge. Neither song raises its heart rate too hard or fast, and they work well because of it. It is nothing unheard of in any sense. These two tracks are the best examples of restraint in creating something solid that does not need to invent the wheel.
However, throughout the more melancholy songs, this lack of inventiveness ultimately fails to elevate the overall album. The same meandering electric guitars strum quietly through “Crazy About You”, “Fall”, and “Sad Ending”, with rhythms at a similarly calm pace. There is more of a euphoric build to a belting chorus in “Crazy”, but its style as a gentle middle-of-the-road rock piece does not have anything to truly set it apart from the other regretful songs on the album. Maybe this is another angle as to the scattergun arrangement of songs on the tracklist; switching in between moods allows Up10tion to break up the song styles more easily.
The only outlier here is “Pandora”, the mid-point track that is far more in line with the bombastic hype style of K-pop. There is the tiniest gimmick in here, in the whistling refrain, whilst the melody continuously descends and the beat makes itself known, stomping through the pre-chorus before the inevitable build to the chorus. This song does not really seem to align with the two other moods of the album, and perhaps its position in the middle serves as some kind of break from the emotional reminiscing on either side of it. It feels like the most instantly performable song on Novella, though whether that means it is a stronger song, a simpler one, or both, is unsure.
Ultimately, Novella feels like an album making a distinctive step towards a more emotional mode. For a group that has to navigate its place as members begin enlistment (Jinhoo is currently serving in the military) and a new generation asserts its own identity, this album feels logical. Creating songs with much more emotional heft, and generally leaning away from the louder, shoutier elements of K-pop, is an expected move as they mature. It makes even more sense when noting that Kuhn, Bitto, and Xiao all contributed to different tracks as lyricists and composers. Of course, there is going to be more introspection and thought in work when idols create their own tracks.
However, the logic and emotion do not compel enough on their own, and there is little in the album to really elevate the songs to a stand-out level. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The songs are solidly delivered, with no real weak point visible. Given that Novella is named after a smaller style of story, a less complex and deep version of something bigger, perhaps that is what this album is–something that can be picked up and flicked through that can put a smile on your face, or invoke romantic memories. This is not the full novel, nor a complex, dense masterpiece. It is lighter and less exciting, which, whilst fine, does not stand out on the shelf of the 3rd generation’s next phase.