Fresh from a record label change, and seemingly beginning her gradual recession from Mamamoo, Wheein has returned with her second solo album Whee. Her previous work, 2021’s Redd, used colour symbolism and artistic motifs to paint an autonomous portrait, and those ideas have carried across to her first album with new company L1ve. The tone is softer and more ethereal here, but Wheein’s strength and presence as a vocalist ensure that this new album is no wild departure, but instead a comforting next step.
Whee is a work of softness, warmth and gentleness. There is not a sound or idea in this track list that is garish, loud or sharp in any way. The title of the second song, “Pink Cloud”, sums up the sonic aura of the album well: we have moved on from the boldness of Redd to something more saturated and less solid in tone. Even the album’s title subtly evokes this. As well as being taken from her name, the corresponding character in Korean (휘) is an onomatopoeic sound representing rushing wind or exhaling breath. This alone indicates something delicate and airy, lacking in solidity, an idea which finds a lot of play among the various tracks.
The motif of art and art creation is still present in Whee, leaning into a questioning of permanence in time, particularly through the idea of engraving. Wheein is explicit about this in the album’s opener, “Make Me Happy”.
The moment I pass by
It rewinds slowly
Engrave in the meaning
So that it can’t be erased
Here she is openly singing of engraving as an act of permanence, more significant than any sketch or painting could be. The image becomes more surreal in “Letter Filled With Light”, the only song on the album that Wheein helped to write.
All the days I spent with you
Engraved with bright light
The engraving here and in “Make Me Happy” is not literal, but still speaks to an eternality of memories and moments. The artistic act of creation in these instances is memory-making, an ironic comment given the temperamental state of memory in most cases.
Alongside these engraving motifs, there is a lot of play with colour and light across this album as well. Perhaps the two key elements of any visual art, Wheein scatters these across the tracks. In “Pink Cloud”, this exceptionally soft imagery is coupled with repeated mentions of warm lingering lights, a “long-awaited relaxed warmth”, and appeals to let her “shine”. In “Pastel”, she sings sensually of her lover’s touch as colour.
When your fingertips touch, the color that spreads
All the colors scattered before my eyes, like a palette
In the album’s final track, “Paraglide”, these colours are forming a “rainbow on the ceiling”, as she flies over “city lights like an aurora”. All of these instances add a sensory element to her words, but more significantly, remain simple as concepts. In “Pastel”, she is dipping her fingers in the different colours of experience, and in “Pink Cloud” she is simply asking to shine like the cloud of the title. “Paraglide” adds in the element of flight as she begins to soar over the world, carried by the wind. These ideas are elemental and easy, a gentle breeze into identity and creativity. Through these lyrics, Wheein is emphasising the playfulness and simple joy in love (“Pastel”) identity (“Pink Cloud”) and freedom (“Paraglide”).
This breeziness, sewn throughout the lyrics and title of Whee, is also mirrored beautifully by Wheein’s own voice. Coming from a group like Mamamoo, famous for their extreme vocal talent, no one will be surprised to hear that there is not a foot put wrong in regard to Wheein’s singing here. Her range is utilised beautifully, from the deep sultriness of “Pastel” to the effortless high notes of “Pink Cloud” or the interlude “Deserve”. In fact, it’s almost pointless to pinpoint exact tracks as evidence of this range, as it really does colour every song on the album.
Hers is such an established and confident ability that there isn’t a moment where anything feels out of her reach, or against the grain of her voice. Far from it, her natural breathiness is a perfect sonic metaphor for the ethereal breeze of her lyrical expression. A song like “Pink Cloud” would not suit belting or sing-shouting, the two styles that seem to dominate many K-pop songs these days. Much as Wheein has the ability to go bigger with her voice, she has the control to never push it, and the style to never need to do it.
Her breathy, sultry tone has also been matched well to the style of the music. It mostly sits comfortably in a sleepy R&B genre, almost tipping into light neo-soul in the “Deserve” interlude. Whilst this styling is in some parts the weakest element of the album as there just isn’t very much variation, there is also no glaringly bad or out of place production. The music fits the mood, it’s just a shame that light seems to equal slightly basic here. For example, in the opening track, “Make Me Happy”, we get the strongest beat of the songs, and even this is the very lightest of disco. “Letter Filled With Light”, “Paraglide” and “Pink Cloud” stick to an almost generic mid-tempo rhythm.
The most exciting track musically is, fittingly, the one that has been so lyrically playful with colour: “Pastel”. Clap refrains, a stripped-back chorus weaving between simple beats, electric guitar samples and Wheein’s own backing vocals create a nice audio collage. Aside from this, there is very little musical innovation. There is soft retro piano opening “Make Me Happy”, and gentle guitars across most of the other songs. They fit the tone and style that the album is going for very well, but it is slightly disappointing that there is little flare here in terms of instrumentation. Even the melodies, comfortable as they are, never veer in any unexpected direction, a feat that Wheein has the talent to achieve if it had been tried.
Whilst the music itself lacks creativity, that is not necessarily what an album like Whee is calling for. To circle back to the title’s double meaning as both part of Wheein’s name and the sound of a rushing breeze, this is an album dealing in the lighter side of her identity: the ethereal and changeable. She is not fixed, like the wind, and is happy in that state, playing with colours and relaxing into music that one can sink into like a warm blanket. In her first work away from RBW, Wheein has shifted the gears down to show her comfort and happiness in the present moment. Hopefully, like the breeze she weaves throughout this album, these ideas will lead somewhere in the future, maybe even gathering up enough momentum to try something more experimental next time.
(Genius, Images via L1ve and Instagram.)