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BTS - Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ Music Album Reviews

BTS - Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’ Music Album Reviews
The latest album from the masters of the K-pop formula is a slick, loosely thematic album about love and loss, with a stronger emphasis on rapping than ever before.

K-pop has long been poised for a breakthrough in the U.S., and the stars have aligned for the Korean boy band BTS. It doesn’t hurt that it is easier now than ever to be a K-pop fan on this side of the world, with the genre being tailor-made for our current algorithm-fed content chain. BTS has seized the opportunity, building a ravenous fanbase, not just at home and stateside but in South America and Europe as well. Bangtan Boys (their full name, Bangtan Sonyeondan, translates to “bulletproof boy scouts” in English), are designed for this moment, highly curated, aesthetically optimized for Western consumption.

BTS have been presented as the art-house alternative to K-pop’s manic energy: a modish, dilettantish, act whose music is a vehicle for larger artistic choices and statements. After debuting as a swag rap outfit, they evolved from rap-sung mashups to posh electro-pop pageantry. The concept for their 2016 album, Wings, was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s 1919 book Demian. The visuals for one of the best BTS songs, “Blood Sweat & Tears,” were picturesque stills framed in a pop-up museum featuring “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” and Nietzsche quotes etched in stone, which all produced dramatic fan readings of the video’s symbolism. The members co-write and co-produce their songs, some of which delve into mental wellness and social responsibility, a process that has led many to dub their songs more “personal,” a word sometimes used as a dog whistle for music appealing to be taken more seriously. Their tactics have been emulated by boy bands who have followed, but in many ways, BTS are simply the K-pop model maximized for efficiency.

Love Yourself: 轉 ‘Tear’, which follows the 2017 mini album Love Yourself: ‘Her’ and the Japanese full-length Face Yourself released earlier this year, is a kaleidoscopic mark of that efficiency, observing the finely tuned formula BTS have been perfecting since 2015. ‘Tear’, like ‘Her’, is a concept album of sorts. Roughly half the songs adhere to the album’s subhead. If ‘Her’ was an assortment of heart-professing love songs, then ‘Tear’ is the inverse. It deals primarily, though not exclusively, with the cycle of grief that lingers through a separation. But all of the songs generally find their way back around to self-love at some point. The album’s opener, “Intro: Singularity,” provides its thesis. “Even in my momentary dreams/The illusions that torture me are still the same,” V sings. “Did I lose myself, or did I gain you?”

Written and arranged with longtime producer and frequent collaborator Pdogg and Big Hit label CEO Hitman Bang along with a team of collaborators (Steve Aoki, MNEK, Chainsmokers co-producer DJ Swivel), ‘Tear’ aims for cohesion and produces fun, prismatic songs in the process. There is some level of thematic consistency on ‘Tear’ with at least a semblance of an emotional arc being teased out across the 11 tracks: navigating a dream world and the real one in search of a personal paradise (which at times reads like an analog for being a pop star, especially on “Airplane Pt. 2”), losing love and facing the requisite anxieties and loneliness. These all come to a head on the foreboding lead single “Fake Love,” characterized in full by a lyric that roughly translates to: “I grew a flower that couldn’t bloom/In a dream that can’t come true.”

K-pop is often experimental in form and function, which produces full-lengths that can be spasmodic in tone and quality. BTS aren’t immune to this, but the rappers—RM (or Rap Monster), J-Hope, and Suga—anchor the group, not only keeping it moored to a unified aesthetic amid constant stylistic shifts but dictating much of what happens in the music. On the bruising, all-rap closer “Outro: Tear,” the three take turns ripping through the track with punchy cadences, at times suddenly swapping places. The group’s vocalists trade off short, sweet passages that revolve around and often pivot off of rapped verses. Where rap verses are often stopgaps for other K-pop groups, obligatory aspects of pop roleplaying, they are essential to structure and composition here. Whispered, breathy raps slingshot into the supple hook on the flute-powered “134340.” On “Love Maze,” RM balances elastic syllabics with singsong musings while Suga dashes into a tightly twisting flow. Between them, the other members let loose mellow, honeyed coos. The sequencing of the vocal routines is as carefully synchronized as the choreography in their videos.

‘Tear’ isn’t as ambitious or stunning or tragic as Wings, which gave each of the seven members a solo turn ranging from lounge-ready piano balladry and symphonic, single-spotlight melodrama to brooding alt-rap with “Blood Sweat & Tears” as its ideological and aesthetic centerpiece. But there are moments here when BTS seem more poised and more in sync than ever. The Aoki-produced “The Truth Untold” is an epic misdirection; instead of leaning into their EDM-flavored pop or the blitzing trap of Aoki’s “Mic Drop” remix, they opt for a seamless piano serenade wherein the group’s four singers weave in and out of each stanza. “Paradise” is largely propelled by graceful exchanges from Jungkook, V, Jin, and Jimin, who surface and retreat gently. Across Love Yourself: 轉 ‘Tear’, BTS are at their best when they feel for and support one another.

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