It is a slightly daunting state of affairs that 2015 is as long ago as it is (eight years — which is totally not alarming at all). Groups from this era are firmly 3rd generation seniors now, with all of the contract changes, scandals and military enlistments that come with that. Monsta X have had their fair share of all of the above, and have steadily been pushing their sound in a more rounded and practiced direction for a while now. 2021’s No Limit was solid and confident, while 2022’s Shape of Love was even more nuanced and mature.
They’ve jumped out of the gate of 2023 with their next effort, Reason, whilst Shownu continues his enlistment and I.M continues his promotions as part of Monsta X through Sony Music Korea, having decided not to renew with Starship Entertainment. Much like their situations continue to evolve, Reason builds on the creativity of Shape of Love, leaning into their heavier, edgier stylings.
This trip down a moodier path is an exciting one, and also intriguing given the level of involvement from the members. Hyungwon, I.M and Joohoney have all contributed to composing and writing on every track except “Daydream”, which, while not unusual for Monsta X at all, shows their ever-increasing involvement in their work. The style of several of the songs echoes themes we’ve heard before, such as the tightness of “Burning Up” from Hyungwon in Shape of Love, or the angst of I.M in his solo tracks, such as “God Damn”.
This angst forms the backbone of the first half of the album, reflected through consistent electric guitar riffs and exciting rhythms. The title track, “Beautiful Liar”, opens with heavy guitars screeching into high notes, before backing up the choruses with trickling little hooks. “Lone Ranger” takes this instrument into almost western-rock territory, growling and thumping under a steady, heavy drumbeat. And it’s not only guitars that contribute to this punkesque, emo mood.
The rhythms and baselines that underlie the first half of the album also add an edgy, sometimes even grungy mood. “Beautiful Liar” has a fast, breathless drumbeat that almost bounces along in its liveliness. “Crescendo” slows things down, but keeps a deep baseline growling under light synths and cleverly employed traditional Korean instruments. ‘Lone Ranger” stomps along relentlessly, whilst “Deny”, a switch in tone undoubtedly, still uses its lazy finger clicks and light funk touches to echo the weariness of the lyrics.
Though it certainly isn’t dark in tone like its predecessors, this slower beat perfectly accompanies the sense of laconic despair and yearning that the members sing about. With I.M contributing to the lyrics, arrangement and composition of the song, it inevitably becomes reminiscent of his solo debut “God Damn”, giving us a similar woozy angst that gets compared to the state of drunkenness.
I’m dizzy, I’m swallowing bitter whiskey again
Sleep won’t come, you’re depicted on the ceiling
Edgy emo-rock isn’t the only style leaned into on this album, as “Deny” attests with its calmer tone. “It’s Alright” is the happiest moment here, or at least musically. The lo-fi pianos and light string samples bop along with a simple snare and cymbal combination, something that could be heard at a casual afternoon jam session, in the best sense.
But even here, there is an undertone that threads this song to the others on the track. Though happy in style, and with generally upbeat lyrics, the yearning for a lover here has still not been fulfilled, and the central voice is still reckoning with that love not actually wanting them back in the present moment.
(It’s you) Who made me like this and pretended not to know
(That’s you) Forget already what I regret, and I’m still
It’s alright, I’m gonna make it back to you
It is a real testament to the members that the central, darker thread of the album runs so smoothly into these tracks, without overlaying the punk-rock stylings on to every single song. Having said this, perhaps the most creative example in playing with these themes is the only one without any production from the members: “Daydream”.
To return to the distinctive rhythms of Reason, “Daydream” is the most notable, opening with almost nursery-rhyme like melodies playing under the vocals. These progress into a dripping, steady little beat under the main track, that almost feels like little footsteps in a forest. Combined with high falsettos and some particularly delicate rapping/singing from Joohoney, this musical landscape cleverly echoes the fantasy of the lyrics, singing of wanting to stay in a world of delusion to avoid the uncomfortable truth.
The Great Gatsby
Perhaps it’s a fantasy, or I’m a lunatic
No, I don’t need a penalty
The rapping throughout the album is as entertaining and skilful as ever. I.M and Joohoney have spent their entire careers proving that they are masters of the more braggadocio side of k-pop rapping, and there is no shortage of that here.
“Beautiful Liar” sees them on fine form, Joohoney in particular playing beautifully with the swaggering beat in his own section. “Crescendo” allows them equal playfulness with speed, but is wonderfully controlled in a way that allows the song to have so much more threatening power.
The expression in these raps also allows for the maximum contrast in tone within songs. As mentioned above in “Daydream”, there is a lot of delicate falsetto work that plays off the harsher rap moments. Hyungwon’s soft voice following the intensity of I.M’s in “Beautiful Liar” allows the light and shade of the song to come through, while Kihyun’s line of “let’s get sexy” following Minhyuk’s laid back rapping is the best way to build the sensual tone of that song in a layered way.
That is the great strength of Reason. When you hear the opening growls of guitar, followed by the bouncing and chanting of “Beautiful Liar” it might be tempting to think that this is going to be ‘the edgy album’. The one where the members pile on the eyeliner and all-black outfits in place of doing anything musically interesting. But with the level of prowess that Monsta X have been able to achieve over 8 years in the industry, this is a wonderfully incorrect estimation.
Reason is, instead, playful and creative, rather than shallowly exploring one sound. Whilst the lyrical ideas of yearning, difficult relationships and ‘love as pain’ are not anything new, once again their presentation feels like it is, in no small part thanks to the members’ own creativity and input. Through concepts as diverse as fairy tale-like fantasies and westerns, the scope of this album is wide. It’s a happy thing to see Monsta X continuing down this innovative path, and signals that the next few years, as their situations inevitably continue to change, they are able to change and grow positively as a group as well.