Album Review: SHINee – Don’t Call Me

[SM Entertainment; 2021]

It may be cliché to start this review with the iconic saying ‘SHINee’s back’, but its succinctness and accuracy still apply. Entering their 13th year in the K-pop industry, SHINee have indeed returned with their first release since 2018’s excellent and emotional The Story of Light; reinforcing how their longevity has been earned through their high-calibre discography and performances comes their seventh full-length album Don’t Call Me. It’s a stark title and fresh concept from a group that might lead you into thinking SHINee are heading into new territory – and they have. Yet, similar to their past albums, the group keep experimental tricks up their sleeves while retaining loyalty to their retro-influenced dance-pop and R&B. Don’t Call Me is both a consolidation of what has made them icons and an exciting glimpse into potential new directions.

The album begins with title track “Don’t Call Me” – a dark R&B hip-hop track with intense energy, agile melodies and a complete one-eighty from what’s expected from SHINee. The song finds the members bluntly calling out an ex who refuses to disappear as Key opens the song: “I don’t want you back – don’t call me / I keep saying there’s no next time in your life.” The song is a combination of hard and soft sounds, easily transitioning from booming beats and distorted vocalisations to smooth synths without any jarring sensation. A particular highlight is Onew’s masterful ability to pull off the fast-paced lyrics of the pre-chorus where he sings how nobody will treat this ex as well as he did. Although this song is a radically different dish from what the group have served before, they pull off this concept well and further prove their versatility. But do not take this single as an indicator of the album’s direction – it is a self-contained world.

This is proven by the next track “Heart Attack”, which immediately gives classic SHINee with its retro-pop R&B styling. Over funky guitars, melodic synths and finger snaps, the group sing about a love that is “not a simple crush,” but something so intense that their hearts are on the edge of combustion. The following “Marry You” is an R&B slow jam with keyboard, bass, twinkling piano and trumpets. The title is self-explanatory: SHINee sing compliments to a love interest (her white teeth for example, or her natural radiance) which eventually culminates in a spontaneous proposal. “Girl I wanna marry you / Right here, right now,” they sing in their typically gorgeous harmonies.

The group opt for a darker synth-pop sound on “CODE”, with its late-night futuristic vibe. This song brings back the dynamic duo of Key and Minho rapping in the first verse, and lyrically talks about figuring out who someone is beyond the façade they present. This is an album standout, especially in the final chorus where the members’ vocoded vocalisations blend into the synth background.

The thread of romanticism is picked up again with “I Really Want You” (perhaps an unofficial sequel to their underrated single “I Want You”), with an upbeat combination of synth stabs, trumpet, syncopation and guitar. This keeps up the old-school vibe and is an unrestrained love song about being overwhelmed by somebody’s aura. Whether it’s from making eye contact or the light brush of hands while walking through a city street, SHINee have never been afraid to put their feelings on the table. This continues on “Kiss Kiss”, a groovy retro number that shows off their clean harmonisation skills. “I just wanna kiss / Kiss your lips,” they frankly state. At this point in the album, there is a sense of playful irony that this album is called Don’t Call Me when there is such an unabashed love-struck vibe.

The final three tracks of the album shift listeners into more modern-sounding productions, like the sexy earworm “Body Rhythm”. On this reggae-influenced pop jam, SHINee confidently sing about the comfortable pace of a relationship. The chorus is simple and repetitive (“Won’t you follow my body rhythm / Come and follow my body rhythm”), yet the members stack their vocals over these lines, giving them an irresistible vivacity. After this track comes the ultimate album standout – the incredible, instantly gratifying “Attention”. With whistles, prominent synths and its groovy pace, this is addictive ear candy that deserves repeated listens. It invokes imagery of walking through the night with that special person by your side, and is ultimately about the euphoric feeling of romantic reciprocation. This song is SHINee with a 2021 sheen, and really demonstrates how their inherent sound stays adaptable to any decade.

The album concludes with the pop ballad “Kind”. Consisting of piano, synths and a shuffling beat, it provides a serene finale. Unlike the previous tracks about love that were fun, unfiltered exclamations, this track is deeper in lyrical content. As the members sing about feeling trapped in a place without an exit, they eventually find themselves pulled out of this sadness by somebody. SHINee have always done ballads incredibly well (See: “Wish Upon A Star”, “I Say”, “Four Seasons”) and this is no exception.

Don’t Call Me is a great album for both newer and older fans. The group’s versatility and innate ability to pull off newer styles is a testament to their unquestionable talent. Whether the tracks hark back to the groovy past or have the sharper, cheekier edge of what’s currently popular, this is fun, unpretentious pop – we need the escapism that these bops so graciously provide. SHINee’s back, and it is such a pleasure to hear it.