Kim Jaejoong describes the feeling of unearthing an oasis in the desert in new song “Nobody Like You”, which is exactly the sense of relief it invokes to have him back in the K-pop zeitgeist! Jaejoong’s unique brand of rock and punk-inflected sound has been a consistent breath of fresh air, especially in a landscape largely saturated with EDM and hip-hop influences.

Triumphantly returned with his first full-length album in six years—which is eons in the world of Hallyu-—Jaejoong’s songwriting continues to shimmer with intense emotion and metaphors, but the overall tenor of his work has shifted to be lighter and brighter than ever before.

Born Gene is infused with an almost spiritual sense of wonder, streaked with mid-tempo melodies that feel reminiscent of the pop-rock sounds that dominated the early 2000s. Even the slower-paced ballads feel tinged with a buoyancy and surety of self that make the listener feel in capable musical hands. As a K-pop industry veteran, it is telling that Jaejoong’s latest work feels more earnest and joyful than many of the songs helmed by artists newer to the scene.

Born Gene is all the more remarkable for its shirking of trends and bombastic production in favor of a decidedly down-to-earth formula: largely uplifting melodies, minimal musical elements, and fantastic songwriting (Jaejoong authored two of the tracks, “Broken Mirror” and “Locking Love.”) This recipe makes for an album that, oddly enough, feels like a precious thing—a rarity in this current musical moment.

Opening track “Nobody Like You” is the kind of exultingly joyful, mid-tempo pop-rock that feels destined to be played during uplifting movies and nestle in the audience’s ears for weeks on end. Propelled by energetic drums and Jaejoong’s signature layer of emotional guitar, the song captures the miraculous moment of finding water in the desert, the last place we would ever have expected to find grace.

The track is like a gradual blossoming of wonder, with Jaejoong’s lyrics positing that it’s at our lowest points when we are open to the greatest change. His writing feels almost spiritual in nature, as he describes “walking alone with a dry heart” during the opening chords of the track, to finding “unfolded paradise” and “seeing heaven” during the chorus, with a “renewed vision.”

“Nobody Like You” is so unbridled in its sense of awe that it feels like the perfect antidote to the stultifying anxiety that tends to accompany our social media and news feeds. Meanwhile, “BPM” crystallizes the internalized pitter-patter of anxiety in a playful way, with the title referring to the “bounce bounce bounce” our hearts experience when we are enamored with someone.

Though this is hardly original musical or lyrical territory, Jaejoong infuses the track with streaks of his trademark violently emotional imagery, as he declares that “[his] heart hurts when [he] sees” the object of his emotion, leaving him “to rampage restlessly.” His playful delivery of the heavy lyrics, (which feel tongue-in-cheek anyway), coupled with the resolutely upbeat production, make the track undisputedly cool as it mostly sidesteps easy cliches.

Emotional ballad “Locking Love”, the slowest-paced track on the album, is intriguing because of its narrative complexity. Jaejoong seems to oscillate between mourning the loss of a breakup—”lying alone, empty without you,” he sings—and revelling in haunting his lost love as a ghost-like figure, recapturing the intoxication of what they shared.

“Even if you try to escape through a dream,” he declares, this relationship will forever be “his universe.” Jaejoong’s falsetto register particularly shines here, gliding effortlessly through the refrain “I can’t see you baby, where are you now?”

“Tick Tack,” featuring SF9‘s Zuho, is the song on Born Gene most tinged with the influence of early 2000s pop-rock in the best possible way. The lyrics are an irreverent, painfully relatable take on how slowly time moves when we most want it to speed up, and how that feeling of being “sick and tired of the world” is the catalyst to “wak[ing] up the true self that has been asleep, right here.”

Though “Tick Tack” is playful pop-rock to the core, the ideas it expresses are pretty profound: that sense of wanting to “wake up” a dormant self and live life to the fullest, while feeling the inexorable passage of time (the oft-repeated “tick tock” in the refrain) around every corner.

Meanwhile, “Broken Mirror” is a deeply personal reflection on the layers of the self. The titular broken mirrors, representing the layers of fabrication the entertainment industry (and perhaps Jaejoong himself) foisted upon him, mark the song with a deeply emotional pallor. But it is also invigorated by an undercurrent of defiance—a renewed sense of self.

When Jaejoong laments his past tendency to hide his true nature and sings “I’m not the man I used to be, I’ll never look back—I’m starting over,” you can’t help but believe him. His vocal delivery is deeply earnest, and his voice cracks and soars with the lyrics, with the lines “I won’t go your way, I’m back to my own glorious self” ringing especially triumphant.

“I Want to Ask You” is the type of ballad that feels perfectly crafted for a heartbreaking K-Drama scene, as Jaejoong laments the loss of a family member and wonders if “the sound of that cold wind” or “the scent subtly permeating” around him could be the person he’s missing so dearly. With the minimal and appropriately somber instrumental his voice takes center stage, but the song doesn’t feel particularly original or noteworthy.

Closing tracks “Walking on Water” and “In the Rain”, however, maintain the sense of awe-induced spiritual appreciation for life that made opener “Nobody Like You” so delightful. “Walking on Water” captures the sense of hope and trepidation we feel when we take a leap of faith and launch ourselves “into the light.” But what Jaejoong finds in that liminal space is not fear, but wonder.

“I’ll follow you beyond the horizon…there is no fear,” he sings, with a sense of both puzzlement and appreciation that is contagious. Instead, the reward of that leap of faith is “walking on water,” like “being in a dream.” He uses the word “miracle” countless times, with the promise to follow this unknown, miraculous call “to the end of the world.” It’s hard not to think of this song as Jaejoong’s love letter to the process of singing and performing itself.

“In the Rain” similarly revels in being in the moment, with calls for us to “inhale deeper” and savor the now, because “this is the only moment we have.” From artists with less life experience or less consistent narrative voices, such sentiments might ring untrue, but Jaejoong has the dexterity as a lyricist and vocalist to deliver these inspiring, life-affirming sentiments with the sincerity they deserve.

Born Gene is a rare species: both playful yet profound. Whether because he’s been absent from the studio for so long or simply because Jaejoong’s grown more self-assured as an artist, Born Gene feels like an incredibly rare offering in the world of K-pop: music that is infused with wisdom. The album is a reminder that music can be a vehicle to moments of wonder, when life seems to coalesce and truly make sense, if only for a shining moment. If you want to be transported to that liminal space too, Born Gene just might take you there.

(Youtube. Images & Lyrics: C-Jes Entertainment.)