Rarely does a song capture the essence of a group as perfectly as StayC’s “Beautiful Monster,” the lead single of their aptly-named new album We Need Love. It’s no secret that love propels and is the subject of most music released by K-pop artists (or artists of any genre), but StayC are perhaps the only group that have so interwoven love on a thematic level–from the exhilarating pursuit of it, to its dizzying side effects–into the fabric of their discography and group identity. StayC’s latest release continues this thread, as We Need Love is a self-assured, explosive exploration of emotional terrain.

In particular, title track “Beautiful Monster” succeeds in celebrating the power of love even as it acknowledges the ever-present potential for pain or heartbreak that accompanies it. This nuanced approach is what lends the song its power and pathos. As the oxymoronic title suggests, opposing forces are what ultimately propel the track, and We Need Love as a whole, forward.

“Beautiful Monster” is awash in cotton candy hues and feels spun out of a daydream, with the group’s signature motifs of hearts, fluffy clouds, and rose-tinted glasses in every frame. The imagery is undisputedly lovely, but lest you be wary of a purely saccharine experience, a foreboding instrumental pulsates beneath the surface, in blatant opposition with the visual loveliness. This obvious misalignment and unsteadiness exactly mirrors the emotional state the song discusses.

Lyrical contradictions aid in this effect, as Sumin sings in the midst of a beautiful meadow “the warm sun rays feel cold…even while I’m holding you, I’m so cold.” Though this paints a seemingly bleak picture, flowers blossom in the background as she sings, suggesting that love has the power to subvert just about anything. It can make the sun feel like ice, just as it can make thorns feel like roses. The power, StayC seem to suggest, is in our hands, even if it may feel otherwise.

In another plot twist, the pre-chorus of the song, “love is the name of the courage I need,” is sung so gently and with such a wispy instrumental–only a few strokes of acoustic guitar accompany the verse–that it’s easy to miss how it feels like a made-for-Twitter declaration of independence. This courage is needed as Yoon fearlessly leads the charge in the chorus, acknowledging the inherently paradoxical beautiful monster and calling for it to both “hurt me and heal me.” The close of the video sees StayC gleefully racing through a meadow as fluffy hearts rain from the sky. It’s the ultimate image of victory. StayC are newly liberated, having opened themselves up to pleasure and pain, their hurting followed by healing.

“Love,” a b-side track, embodies the central premise of “Beautiful Monster” almost more than that song itself. Simultaneously upbeat and melancholic, saturated with longing for a past relationship even while resolutely looking forward, the song is deeply concerned with the listener understanding the singer’s emotions. “Do you know how I feel?” is the oft-repeated refrain, as StayC explore the layers of nostalgia that accompany a past love, acknowledging “our story that we carved is breaking away.”

The sweet, dream-like synths of “Love” quickly evolve into a self-assured bass line that punctuates refreshingly honest lines like “love is hard, why do I feel like I’m not myself?” The song ultimately asks the listener to seal their time together in memory and then let it go. It is both a poetic and straightforward track, with StayC in prime, self-assured vocal form.

Like “Beautiful Monster,” the song is a bit of a paradox, and resists leaning too heavily on only one emotional note. The longing and wistfulness the listener would expect is there, but the track balances it with an inherent optimism, acknowledging that life goes on and new love is always around the corner. “Love” feels both mature and refreshing in its certainty that there is always a new day ahead, which prevents the sugary melodies from feeling one dimensional.

The magical realist world of the “Beautiful Monster” video is also far from sweet or one dimensional. Natural forces take on a life of their own, hindering the narrative when the girls are uncertain of their emotions, but blossoming and moving the narrative forward as they become more certain of themselves, especially in the face of the titular monster. For example, storm clouds encroach in J‘s room, as she sings “it’s like a puzzle, but it’s okay,” mirroring her state of confusion. During the first chorus referencing the monster, Sieun eats an apple that sends her into a panic, with animated creatures descending upon her. A chorus later, once the girls have found each other and summoned their resolve, Sumin is gently swept away into the clouds as she acknowledges the song’s refrain: “love is the courage we need.”

It can be unusual for tracks to have such a clear ‘thesis statement’ or rallying cry, but “Beautiful Monster,” despite its contradictions, makes itself very clear on how it wants its listeners to feel: courageous, especially in the name of following one’s heart. It may sound lofty or starry-eyed, but the beauty of the song is that it has a steeliness to it even as it celebrates the power of these full throttle emotions.

“I Like it,” the album’s other original b-side track, is easy and self-assured, but with similar calls for courage. It embodies the natural evolution of a group who have wrestled with the beautiful monster and are fully comfortable in their skin. Conversational in tone, the track feels like a love letter to Swiths, StayC’s fandom. There are direct calls for self-love–“be easy on yourself,” Isa sings– asking listeners to relinquish their desire to control their image or be liked and instead just let go. This call for ease and authenticity is in very different musical packaging than “Beautiful Monster.” “I Like It” is the definition of an easy breezy summer K-pop song, but the similar ethos and messaging is there. Even We Need Love‘s final track, a remix of “Run2U,” the lead single off StayC’s previous album, takes on a similarly tropical flavor, with punchy synths and a stronger bassline than the original iteration of the track.

“Beautiful Monster” is so well-crafted and saturated with intrigue, on a narrative, lyrical, and visual level, that it feels like the embodiment of StayC’s trajectory as a group so far. Though the track’s call for courage and celebration of the liberating power of love is clear, the identity of the oft-referenced monster is purposely ambiguous. While the song is situated in a romantic context, and the girls shoot their potential lovers text messages in the world of the music video, the real quest of the song seems to be that of battling the self. Our own fears, and desire to shield ourselves from pain, conflict with the quest to become comfortable with the vulnerability required for an authentic love with ourselves or someone else. “I Like It” acknowledges that same internal quest.

We see this represented visually in the MV when StayC release their balloons to the sky. Love requires letting go of one’s demons, to a degree, and the song acknowledges the courage involved in revealing one’s vulnerabilities to a monster. This decision, to be seen for who we truly are, is a decision all of us must make. StayC argue unequivocally through this album that being openhearted and courageous when given the choice is always the right answer, though, needless to say, not always an easy one.

Perhaps what makes We Need Love, and StayC’s discography as whole, so compelling is how unabashedly committed the group are to exploring layers of emotion. After all, music–like love–is about transcendence. It’s about being the best possible version of yourself. Paradoxically, it is also about letting go, reveling in emotion, and cracking ourselves open to the level of joy we can only experience when we are wholly ourselves.

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius Lyrics. Images via High Up Entertainment.)