In a musical landscape where reinvention and sound changes are taken as intrinsically good, I’ve always felt there’s something to be said for when an artist knows where their strengths are and how to play to them. AC/DC might have made the same album 15 times, but that’s only a problem if you don’t like it. Similarly, after 20 years in the industry, Jaejoong (who now promotes under the name J-Jun) knows what he’s about. He does pop-rock built on soaring vocals about big emotions. Unfortunately, the production on his latest album, Flower Garden, doesn’t quite get it, and that hurts the project.

Jaejoong’s greatest strength as an artist has always been his voice. Not just technical ability, though he undeniably has that, his ability to convey emotions, the sheer power, or a very distinct vocal color, either. Instead, it’s his ability to do all of the above at once. Further, unlike many whose vocals are based heavily on performance over pure technique, Jaejoong doesn’t suffer for being on a recording versus a live performance. It’s as raw and emotive and powerful as one would expect from a concert. When people just stand back and let Jaejoong be Jaejoong, magic happens.

That is made abundantly clear on the opening track, “Good News.” What’s the good news? That Jaejoong is here, of course! “Good News” is an undeniable “I’m back, bitch” single, and a reminder of how much fun that is when it works. It’s an over-the-top bombastic riot of rock, funk and swing, with Jaejoong’s voice melting into the instrumentation. There is not a shred of substance, but no one wants that in a retro dance party anyway.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is a bit of a let down. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good. There’s plenty to like here. But unlike “Good News”, the rest of Flower Garden doesn’t match Jaejoong’s energy. You cannot keep the instrumentation at an eight for a singer who only goes to eleven.

Without fail, the best tracks on the album are also the biggest. “Tru Love Tru Lies” is a synth-heavy, melodramatic mess, and that is a glowing endorsement. Jaejoong is in absolute agony over a failing relationship, knowing it’s over but refusing to let it go, even if it means lying to himself. “Dopamine (ft Miyavi)” is a crunchy, punky ode to performing and the ego and adrenaline rush that comes with it. And “Concrete Heart” is a grandiose, weighty piece about the dichotomy of humanity–if you cut yourself off from people, you end up bitter and lonely, and if you don’t, you inevitably get hurt. It’s cynicism that doesn’t want to be cynical, with Jaejoong wishing it didn’t hurt, but knowing that sometimes, all you can do is retreat, lick your wounds, and start over.  

Even some of the quieter songs can work if they meet Jaejoong’s intensity. “Dream Party” is a great example. It’s soft and gentle, but still slick. The bass line is immaculate, creating a playfully romantic vibe that Jaejoong plays off perfectly. He’s somewhere between seduction and begging, sliding from the former to the latter as the song goes on, but he’s so sincerely charming that it would work on anyone. Then there’s the plodding, off-kilter “Don’t”. It’s warped, it’s faux-saccharine, its synths sound like deflating balloons, and it’s the perfect embodiment of someone who is trying to end an unhealthy relationship, except the other person won’t leave them alone. This is when you’re not even angry anymore, because you’re just so exhausted.

As said previously, there’s plenty of good on Flower Garden. But even the previous tracks could have used a bit of pumping up, and then there’s tracks like “To The Boy”. It’s a letter to his past self, reassuring him that he’ll survive all that’s ahead of him, and Jaejoong gives it his all, but the production is fairly limp. The same holds true for “Glorious Day”, while “The Light” criminally underuses Moonbyul. And while it may be argued that a song about taking a moment to find inner peace should be restrained, that doesn’t really mesh with Jaejoong’s skills. He only goes to eleven.

The two ending ballads are the clearest example of where the production needed to be bigger, grander, more over-the-top. “Rain Shower” and “I AM U” are both fine; the former about holding out hope an ex will give you another chance while trying to find peace if they don’t, the latter a love letter to his fans and the connection created by music. Unfortunately, neither hits the swell needed to pay off the sheer emotional power Jaejoong is putting in. You keep expecting the songs to build to something massive and let all those feelings hit a fever pitch before exploding in catharsis… but it never happens. Instead, they peter out, and you’re left both unsatisfied and acutely aware of how badly you want Jaejoong to cover a Jim Steinman power ballad.  

Compounding the above is the lyrics. There’s a lot of filler lyrics in play. A lot of repetition. And a lot of generic sentiments. Don’t get me wrong, Jaejoong sells the hell out of it, but it’s Jaejoong. He could sell intense passion for car insurance. But sharper lyrics with more detail would help.

The only really memorable lyrics are for “Devotion”, and not in a good way. Jaejoong has been dumped for another man, and rather than being hurt, he’s angry. Which is fine, but it’s less “I’ve lost someone important and I’m upset” and more “someone else is playing with my toy”. Then there’s the references to spitting out used chewing gum. I fervently don’t want these to be a reference to how many evangelical Christians compare women with multiple partners to chewed gum– i.e., the more people a woman has dated, the less value she has–but I cannot find another meaning. It makes you ask if Jaejoong ever even liked his girlfriend, and just puts a bad taste in your mouth. 

The thing about knowing what you’re about and playing to your strengths is that that quality has to be maintained. Flower Garden is classic Jaejoong, and has some solid songs, but it’s only good. And it’s a lot harder to interest people in good classic Jaejoong when they have great classic Jaejoong at home. And it’s so frustrating, because you can see the great album in Flower Garden. Polish the lyrics a bit more, set “Devotion” on fire, and most importantly, turn the instrumentation up to eleven.

(Images via iNKODE, YouTube)