Perhaps no one has earned the right to party more than Red Velvet. 2022 has seen them in poised, commanding musical form, with the elegantly wrought ReVe Festival: Feel My Rhythm reaching soaring heights earlier this year. Seulgi‘s recent solo album, 28 Reasons, was another triumph: a spectacularly-crafted self-portrait that felt like a natural extension of her work with the group.
With ReVe Festival 2022: Birthday, the quintet immerses us in the lush production and classical-inspired melodies that have become their trademark, and in the process brings us an iteration of Red Velvet that is supremely warm, richly layered, and, above all else, bringing the celebration. The best way to put it is that this album is Red Velvet at their most Red Velvet.
The group have built their discography on exploring sonic boundaries–after all, their interdisciplinary nature is inherent even in their name, with “Red” and “Velvet” each denoting very different, no less compelling, musical moods. Many of their tracks are such feasts for the senses it is hard to imagine another act capable of anchoring them.
That near sensory overload begins from the first moment of the album, as title track “Birthday” dizzyingly unites many of Red Velvet’s sonic signatures. The song is anchored by contrasts, sampling George Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue,” but largely propelled by trap drums that feel pulled from labelmate Aespa‘s playbook. While “Feel My Rhythm” was marked by elegance and refinement, there’s a spunky, electronic eccentricity to “Birthday,” and an enthusiasm that makes the song genuinely infectious.
We see this in the DJ-like effect to the instrumental’s stuttering stops and starts, acting as quotation marks of sorts to Wendy‘s verse. She exudes the gleeful confidence that characterizes “Birthday” as a whole, in her assurance that when life is this good, the world can’t help but respond with giving us more to celebrate. “I’m feeling [so] giddy, even the weather’s perfect,” she tells us, inhabiting the space between rapping and vocalizing with a charisma that is captivating. Even without high notes for her powerful voice to belt, Wendy’s delivery shines as she reminds us that this “special day” is “all a gift.”
This spirit of gratitude and easy self-assuredness–fitting of Red Velvet as industry veterans–is carried into the chorus with the group’s trademark gorgeous harmonies. The members manifest a bigger and brighter world into existence with every line, singing that “whatever we wish, the world creates.”
“Dream bigger” is “Birthday’s” ultimate call to action, and the post-chorus call for champagne only heightens the feel-good atmosphere. Like 2019’s “Umpah Umpah,” “Birthday” is a self-referential treat for Reveluvs, featuring lyrical references to other tracks as fun Easter eggs for fans–among them “Ice Cream Cake” and “Dumb Dumb,” playfully acknowledging their legacy while traversing new musical territory.
Perhaps the climax of “Birthday,” though, comes with Seulgi’s declaration that “Tonight, we rock the world,” (a nod to their debut single “Happiness”), in the form of a tantalizing vocal build before the song explodes into a firework of drums and hi-hats. Red Velvet is a master of building musical tension and releasing it in unexpected ways that keep us on our toes. That mastery of ebb and flow is on artful display in “Birthday.”
Unlike “Feel My Rhythm,” which interwove its classical melody into each chorus, “Birthday” utilizes Gershwin’s sample only in the song’s first section, as a springboard to the slower, spicier chords that announce Joy‘s voice in her verse. Perhaps the only pitfall of “Birthday” is that while it maintains the group’s sonic inventiveness, it does not allow the members much to do vocally. Wendy, in particular, feels underutilized.
“Bye Bye” is immediately more compelling in this regard. Haunting in Red Velvet’s signature dreamlike, dizzying way, “Bye Bye” is an ornately-textured medley of hip-hop and classical elements. The song kicks off with spellbinding crescendoes, only to smoothly segue into a spoken-word opening courtesy of Wendy, who proves that she can hold listeners in place even without the benefit of a melody to back her up. “I only had love for you,” she tells us matter-of-factly, drenched in attitude, before Irene sweeps us into the body of the song.
“Bye Bye” is, as the name suggests, a kiss-off to a relationship that has proven to be alternately “dangerous” or just a “boring loop of deja vu,” as Yeri puts it. The group vacillates between nonchalance and crippling doubt as they end things, acknowledging the larger-than-life pull this love has exerted on them. Irene sings that the relationship was “a door full of mystery, opened wide” to possibility, while Wendy’s explosive cries of “you were my destiny” over the seemingly unaffected chorus create a song that is ripe with delicious emotional contrasts.
Those contrasts are skillfully accentuated by the multilayered production, with the hip-hop bounce–accompanied by muffled strings that embellish and act as slight delays for the vocals–further drenching us in the delightfully distorted, atmospheric feel of “Bye Bye.” The effect is disorienting, as we stumble around aimlessly in this sonic wonderland, caught between the certainty offered by the hip-hop beat and the fantasy of the relationship embodied by the classical flourishes. Red Velvet’s ability to create harmonies as intriguing and multilayered as their production is especially apparent here, making it hard to say farewell to “Bye Bye.”
“On a Ride” immerses us even deeper in this carnivalesque state of overwhelm, but shifts the mood to one of playfulness, with a metal-sounding synth and ticking-clock percussion conveying the cheeky, mischievous vibe. In “On a Ride,” the Reve Festival is in splendid full force, chronicling a relationship that is delightfully on the pulse of adrenaline (almost like the thrill of trying to make it to each amusement park ride before closing).
While “Bye Bye” was simultaneously anchored and unmoored by a sense of finality, in “On a Ride,” Red Velvet exult in the thrill of uncertainty, and revel in their “thumping hearts” that “refuse to calm down.” What’s so interesting about this song is that the love story is secondary to the physicality that comes with it: the swooping rush of “flying everywhere with a special feeling,” akin to the sensation “of dreaming an unknown dream,” as Joy sings. It’s impossible not to smile along with the giddy pace of the track, and the utter confidence conveyed by a group that is so clearly not taking themselves seriously, but simply enjoying the “ride.”
That ride never translates into complacency for the listener, though, as Seulgi reminds us that “even if the black night comes after us…we can move [faster].” Almost like a heartbeat, the percussion at the core of “On a Ride” grounds the song and is as constant as Red Velvet’s unshakable confidence. “The whole world [will] welcome us,” Wendy sings, no matter where the night takes them. The topsy-turviness of the track, mirroring the feeling of lightheadedness that comes with reaching the top of a Ferris wheel, is vivid in every way, with all production elements coming together in beautiful synchrony sonically, lyrically, and vocally. “On a Ride” is the kind of masterclass of a song that is undisputedly Red Velvet.
“Zoom,” meanwhile, is perhaps the least obvious Red Velvet track on the album, because it is propelled by negative space instead of the group’s signature auditory layers. The intriguing breathing room we are given around the verses imbues “Zoom” with a curiously surreal, almost live feel. This, in turn, makes the members’ voices all the more impactful, befitting the premise: basically, Red Velvet is certain that their love is up to no good, and isn’t sure what, exactly, the nature of that wrongdoing is, but they are not here to take prisoners. As detectives on the case, they “zoom” in on every micro expression and shred of evidence they can glean to figure out the root cause of this “criminal” behavior. Irene’s ominous post-chorus chant of “remember,” coupled with the bridge’s platform for Joy’s vocals, make “Zoom” eerily addictive, and a dark horse in Red Velvet’s discography.
ReVe Festival 2022: Birthday, is, at its core, though, a celebration album. There’s no denying the underlying playful, bouncy quality propelling even “Bye Bye” and “Zoom’s” darker moments. In fact, Birthday almost feels like a holiday album without any holiday-centric songs! It’s appropriate then, that the final track, the aptly-named “Celebrate,” wraps a beautiful ribbon on our Red Velvet experience.
“Celebrate” is one of the most straightforwardly, undeniably pretty K-pop songs of the year. Like “Zoom,” it is comparatively minimalistic relative to Red Velvet’s typical production style, with a somewhat muddy, atmospheric mood created in the mix that makes the song feel like a deliciously rich custard, with all ingredients–the members’ voices, the drums, and strings of the instrumental–coalescing so harmoniously it is hard to tell where one element ends and another begins. That rich, dream-like quality is what lulls us into a trance for the chorus, when we are swept away by Red Velvet’s gentle reminder that “every moment is precious,” and we have to make the most of it by living “with sincerity.”
Everything about The ReVe Festival 2022: Birthday collection feels built towards longevity. Instead of exploding with bombastic sound or the sonic aloofness that seems to be en vogue, Red Velvet opt for a textured middle ground here that is compelling in its timelessness. Even as they bring us songs with their signature off-kilter, inventive edge, the gracious, celebratory spirit of this album brings us an especially lovely version of Red Velvet.
If you’re looking for a warm, rich holiday confection that will carry you far beyond December, into the new year and beyond, the heart exuded in this version of the Reve Festival will offer you just that. In this way, “Birthday” solidifies what makes Red Velvet as a group so compelling and will likely insure their longevity for years to come. Red Velvet’s songs care about their listeners enough to instill a sense of wonder in us, and to elevate us somehow beyond our everyday experience. This sense of transcendence, in ways big and small, is what the holidays are about, and what The ReVe Festival 2022: Birthday brings us in spades.