Throughout their nearly 8-year career, Winner have bounced between two distinct styles: moody melodrama and light-hearted party music. From their very first album, 2014 S/S, the group have seemingly been as comfortable with tormented confessions as they are with bouncy club beats, sometimes in the same song. It’s an odd combination, but for the most part, Winner have made it work. Their versatility is likely a huge factor in their longevity. And when the group marries their two modes, it can make something truly unique and appealing, like their people-pleasing yet not inelegant breakout hit “Really Really.” At its best, Winner’s two-pronged approach allows them to enrich their mainstream appeal with a dose of depth and lighten their angst with a shot of self-aware wit.
Returning for the first time in 2 years, with military service behind the group’s two oldest members and in front of its two youngest, Winner had an obvious chance in their newest release to define what a new musical era might look like for them. Would they embrace one side of their two-sided musical coin, continue on their balanced path, or try something totally new? If their six-track EP Holiday is any indication, they have committed completely to the cheerful portion of their musicality; taking the EP as the main piece of evidence, that’s a real shame.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with light-hearted music. However, Holiday is light to the point of being weightless. It has no impact, and rather surprisingly for a group with as compelling of a discography as Winner, the album can best be described as bland. While glimpses of Winner’s more mature side occasionally pop up, these welcome interludes are so brief that their impact on the overall EP is minimal. What’s left is a collection of inoffensive songs with no distinct musicality and very little lyrical ingenuity. There’s nothing to hate here, but also nothing to love.
Title track and album-opener “I Love U” is a prime example of Holiday’s mediocrity. The song has moments of promise: catchy melodies abound, Mino and Hoony’s back-and-forth second verse is genuinely charming, and lyrics like “I like you more than myself” point towards the more interesting song that could have been. For the most part though, “I Love U” is sweetly forgettable, an overly simplistic ode to a love made meaningless by lack of identifying details.
Musically, especially, the song struggles. Vocalists Yoon and Jinu are forced to stretch uncomfortably for screechy high notes, particularly in the song’s frankly grating chorus. The song also collapses towards its close. After a rather lovely bridge, “I Love U” veers jarringly into a YG-style party chorus, then ends abruptly. In the track’s MV, the inconsistency of this conclusion with the rest of the song is visually apparent, with the final scenes of the MV seeming like they were tacked on, neither matching previous scenes nor the music that is playing over them. There’s promise in this title track, but it goes entirely unfulfilled.
Similar to “I Love U,” b-side “10 min” has pros that do not ultimately overpower its cons. The choice to pair 80s synths with a slow but modern club beat is interesting, but the song would need to take it a lot further than “10 min” is willing to to really get something out of it. That being said, “10 min” is definitely the catchiest song on the EP, particularly its chorus, earnestly belted by Yoon in a strong vocal moment. Earnestness and nostalgia are abundant in “10 min,” and there is definitely charm in that combination.
What doesn’t work about the song is its lyrics, which describe an innocent, puppy-ish enthusiasm to pursue a new attraction. There is a forced naivete to this storyline that doesn’t make sense for a group whose members are in their late 20’s and early 30’s, particularly when those members have sung more fittingly mature songs like “Baby Baby,” “Fool,” and “My Bad.” In “10 min,” they instead ask the object of their affection to “hurry up, before this excitement, this trembling I felt for the first time cools down,” and it just isn’t convincing. Winner aren’t bright-eyed teens, but complicated adults, and denying them that depth is a self-defeating move. There’s no reason Winner can’t be mature humans unexpectedly swept away by a synth-soundtracked crush, but boxing them into a sanitized corner where everything is a new discovery at the age of 30-something robs the song of any authenticity. It’s a problem that strips “10 min” of its magic, and haunts most of Holiday.
“Little Finger” and “Holiday” have the cloying childishness of “10 min” with none of that track’s musical promise. “Little Finger” is technically a breakup song, but the most shallow one possible, robbing it of any possibility of adding emotional complexity to the EP. In the track, Winner beg their love to not leave them, offering them a literal pinky promise as a sign of their loyalty. The immaturity of this move is emphasized by the song’s musical qualities, all mid-tempo beats, and closed with a mostly shout-sung bridge and chorus like a kid’s song. There are a few sharper lyrical moments, like Mino’s admission that “even if I engrave it in my head and make a promise again, like an immature child, I betrayed my faith again,” but he’s still a child, and a man-child’s regret is just not that compelling.
“Holiday” actually opens with one of the strongest musical moments on the EP, a languid series of guitar chords that hint at a cool, mellow mood. However, the song soon devolves into party pop norms, all cheerful electronic notes and soft beachy beats. It’s as boring as the familiar tale the lyrics of the song tells, of wanting to go on a holiday with the one you like. When you have to start name dropping random summer activities, like drinking “Ethiopia coffee from the café in front of my house,” “cool surfing in Waikiki,” and “chilling frozen beer in advance” to fill the 3 minutes of your song, that’s a prime signal that you need to find a more inspiring topic.
The other two songs on Holiday, “Family” and “Sweet Home,” are the tracks that come closest to breaking Holiday’s losing lyrical streak. “Family” takes a sweet and different approach to a love song, romanticizing the familial bond between the Winner members themselves. Unfortunately, “Family” chooses to express this bond with a load of platitudes and yet more cheerful shout-singing (this EP has a particular fondness for this vocal technique, though “technique” might be too kind a way to describe it). Mino’s rap verse, filled with references and namedrops that are probably incomprehensible to anyone besides the group’s members and most devoted fans, comes the closest to capturing something movingly real. For the most part though, “Family” fails to capitalize on its appealing premise.
Musically, “Sweet Home” is similarly disappointing; while the simple piano and percussion that runs behind most verses works for the track, the addition of a harmonica is–it can’t be stressed enough–very unnecessary. The shout-singing is also still extremely present. However, lyrically, “Sweet Home” finally bring something interesting to the table. Reflecting on the idea of home, and of wanting to return to wherever or whoever is their home, Winner’s members become introspective. Hoony in particular brings something raw and compelling to his verse, seeming to consider the toll his career has taken on his ability to have and connect with his home:
The appearance of me on the square TV is just a pretense
The narcissism that has disappeared in the erased makeup
Reminds me of a winter night on the rooftop
Because dreams in a small room are the biggest
Where am I running? Did I lose the little prince’s box?
It’s been a while since I called home, am I busy? Mom, I can’t walk first
What is far in this narrow world? Come back home as a son this weekend
Here finally is a blessed dose of emotional layers, of something other than shallow, and thus unconvincing, happiness. The bitterness of parts of “Sweet Home” is a respite from the rest of Holiday’s monotonous cheer, and a promising indication that the versatile Winner of albums past isn’t permanently gone.
Having the group back, even with an EP as unimpressive as this, is nice. Winner are talented performers, and given the major role most of the members have played in much of their music, and the fact that much of that music has been excellent, they are evidently talented songwriters and producers too. Their longevity is deserved, and will hopefully continue for a long time. Holiday is not a worthy showcase for their abilities, and it’s a shame they are returning after a long break with something so subpar. Hopefully, this EP isn’t truly a sign of things to come for the group, but rather a throwaway appetizer before a delectable future musical treat.
(YouTube. Lyrics via YouTube. Images via YG Entertainment.)