Amid a fast-paced industry that’s becoming more and more saturated with trendy ideas and aesthetics, Onew’s latest release Circle stands out immensely with its timeless nature.
Looking at the Shinee members’ individual works, Onew’s musical identity has been one of the harder ones to discern.
In his first official venture as a soloist, Voice featured various ballads and acted as a comforting gift for fans before Onew’s military enlistment. With his second EP Dice, the singer dipped into brighter and poppier sounds that melded perfectly with his distinct vocals. Although both albums were well-crafted and enjoyable, there isn’t much connection between them stylistically apart from Onew’s unique vocals.
As the first Korean studio album since the Shinee leader’s debut 15 years ago, Circle feels like a thorough mix of his past releases. Some numbers are delicate and emotional like “Blue” while others are sweet and cheerful like “Dice.” It’s an incredibly diverse yet cohesive record that wonderfully showcases Onew’s versatility.
Furthermore, the track list follows a circular path just as the album title indicates. Listeners can experience the four seasons in order as they go through the record.
With that, the dreamy R&B single “O (Circle)” stands proudly as the album’s representative track. It’s a soft and soothing song that is well-suited for all seasons of the year.
Lyrically, the tune draws an analogy between the passing of seasons and the cycle of life:
The eternal cycle around the sun, the wind
The clouds, the rain, and the sea
Between spring, summer, fall and winter
All the greetings and the farewells have been the same
Each season is different with certain aspects that distinguish it from the rest, but its repetition every year also gives off a sense of connection and similarity. In the same way, the ups and downs that we all go through in life may seem different on the surface but are actually similar emotionally. Whether it’s love, fear, regret, or just simply growing up, many of us can relate with these experiences.
This poetic theme is strengthened by a deep bassline, hazy organ-like and arpeggio synths, and Onew’s striking vocals of course. These elements together work to produce a song that sounds larger than life. The instrumental acts as a circle that’s constantly moving ahead, taking us on a soul-stirring journey and seeping us into its homely yet theatrical atmosphere.
Even though the vocal arrangement during the verses aren’t as interesting as one could hope, the chorus is absolutely stunning with Onew’s voice being supported by a gospel choir that becomes even more enthralling in the outro. “O (Circle)” is imposing and grandiose but never flashy. Its intimacy and vulnerability creates a pensive perspective that feels wholly Onew’s.
Continuing with the ‘season’ concept, the first two B-sides kick off the album’s circular track list as “Cough” and “Rain On Me” reflect a cold and bitter winter. Both begin with a mellow acoustic guitar with not much else in the instrumental, putting most of the spotlight on Onew’s calming vocals. The two numbers also express a longing for the past which feels especially lonesome amid the chilly weather.
“Rain On Me,” partly composed by singer-songwriter Sam Kim, conveys this yearning in a more typical fashion as a lyrical ballad in which Onew pines for a former lover on a dreary, rainy day. The tune is gentle for the most part but offers a bit more intrigue as drum beats and organ sounds are included in the mix. This is intensified further with densely layered strings that come in for the final chorus and bridge before ending with the same simple guitar as the beginning.
On the other hand, “Cough” is upbeat in sound despite its downhearted lyrics.
As its Korean title “환절기” (which translates to ‘the change of seasons’) implies, the mid-tempo pop number feels like the period in between seasons. In this case, we’re about to transition from winter to spring. Like a stubborn cold that doesn’t go away easily as the weather changes, the longing for an ex after a breakup is also hard to stop. The bright melody, though, provides an interesting contrast with the glum sentiments and gives a little hope to listeners.
Moving into spring and summer, the next three tracks are light, romantic, and befitting of the sunnier seasons.
“Caramel,” which features rapper Giriboy, is especially sweet with Onew’s honey-like vocals. The jazz pop tune makes good use of unique bass and piano sounds, but the scat singing from Onew is what really stands out here. It’s present in the background during the second chorus and brought to the forefront for the instrumental bridge where Onew does a lip trumpet right before actual brass is introduced. The whole piece is as charming and sugary as its song name.
“Anywhere” takes a cooler approach with Onew using falsetto and whispery vocals often. The instrumental combines a vintage keyboard with bass and more futuristic sounding synths for a sophisticated listen. In a way, the number somewhat feels like a city pop version of “On the Way” from Dice with its dreamy ambiences.
While “Anywhere” is mature and relaxing, pop track “Paradise” is cute and bubbly with a lively guitar riff to start things off. The lighthearted synths and strings are also really fun additions that keep up the excitement as Onew romantically compares the feeling of falling in love to a gushing galaxy:
Like a lie, find my fantasy
Very close in your eyes (Your eyes)
I think I recognized you the moment we first met
The paradise you’ll take (Paradise)
“Walk With You,” though situated near the end of the album, is another suitable tune for spring. The breezy beat in tandem with Onew’s warm vocals is perfect for a comfortable walk on a bright spring day. And, like its Korean title “기억을 걷다” (which translates to ‘walk through memories’), there’s a slight wistfulness in the melody that can bring up old memories.
Transitioning into autumn, both “Expectations” and “No Parachute” are darker and sharper in tone.
In “Expectations,” Onew compares the feeling of having continuous expectations after only getting disappointed to a battery that must continuously be recharged.
The instrumental is alluring with drum beats, pluck synths, and a cool electric guitar. Moreover, the dynamic vocal melody allows Onew to showcase more of his skills and versatility with his voice.
“No Parachute,” the following song, is probably the most daring on the album. In the indie pop number, Onew recklessly dives head first in events no matter how scary or peculiar they are:
I got no parachute and I’m fallin’
The end of this fear
A strange tremor
An unfamiliar feeling of descent
I feel it with my whole body, dive in
Jump, jump, jump into the world
Old-school synth sounds and strong drum beats entice listeners while Onew’s voice completely captivates them. Despite the tune’s short length, it sure packs a punch with its addictive vocal lines.
Changing seasons once more, the final track of the album returns us to the chilly winter that we started our journey in. But this time, rather than the bitterness from “Cough” and “Rain On Me,” “Always” is a soothing ballad that expresses Onew’s wish to stay by the listener’s side to comfort them:
Happy days are always short
Pain is hard to forget
But on your ordinary night,
I’ll always be by your side like that
Its snug and cozy atmosphere brings this well-thought-out album to a warm close.
Altogether, Circle feels like a tender embrace — one that won’t disappear as the industry’s trends continue to come and go. The album is completely filled with Onew’s distinct colors and scents, strengthening and beautifully representing his musical identity. It’s a wonderful addition to his discography and Shinee’s overall catalog. How Onew further develops his sound in future releases is sure to be met with excitement and anticipation.
(YouTube . Lyrics via Genius . Images via SM Entertainment.)