[SM Entertainment; 2020]

There is always worry that Taemin is one of the most overworked idols in K-op. Besides being a very prolific soloist, he is also a member of acclaimed boy-group SHINee and SM’s first super-group SuperM, and this has amounted to participation on an approximate total of 27 combined mini and full albums since 2008. Such hard work has paid off massively, as he is considered an icon of the genre – or to put it very simply, he is ‘your favourite artist’s favourite artist’. It is only more to his credit that with every new comeback he seems genuinely stronger – someone who instantly replaces energy the moment he expends it.

But who is this infallible man who doesn’t break a sweat on stage and is always at the top of his game? Taemin is answering that question with his latest album Never Gonna Dance Again: Act 2. A full album in two ‘acts’, the first arrived two months ago with its lead track “Criminal” – a song about being seduced by an unsavoury character. Murky and intense, Act 1 really demonstrated his determination to move even in the pitch blackest of spaces. However, there were still the occasional bright spots on the album that ensured he was not wholly consumed by the underworld he was inhabiting. It is this duality – this conflict between shadow and light – that is the overarching theme of this album. The search for identity (and the acceptance of it, once discovered) can be an  arduous journey, yet he is willing to be his listeners’ guide through inner turmoil and victory.

With Act 2, the singer stands reluctantly in the entrance towards a brighter space while keeping some of his body in the black behind him. For despite the album being lighter, he is not fully committed to abandoning the darkness – nor should he be. This is demonstrated through the album’s opening track and lead single “Idea” – an intense, left-field dance track that has Taemin contemplating and embracing his own contrasting traits. The song begins with a gentle combination of synths and claps before, transitioning into a thunderous chorus interposed with dramatic strings. Cinematic and aggressive, Taemin explores how giving in to other aspects of his character will make him limitless. The production combines extreme shades of light and dark together to symbolise Taemin’s journey to enlightenment and the unification of selves. This could also be a reference to his defiance of gender norms in his music videos, where he confidently embodies the masculine and the feminine. Compared to previous lead track “Criminal”, this is far from a straightforward bop – “Idea” feels sharper, menacing and triumphant while still embodying the dark sensuality that has become a trademark of his discography.

Sensuality is further explored in “Heaven”, a mid-tempo R&B song driven by guitar and – appropriately – the backing vocals of a choir. Taemin is offering an ascension to a higher plane, and with lyrics such as “I bet you like that” it isn’t difficult to guess the method. His vocals, often breathy and suiting the erotic atmosphere of such styled tracks, are powerful, particularly towards the final chorus where he ad-libs and reminds listeners of his impressive range.

Meanwhile, “Impressionable” has creepily whimsical production that would suit a Tim Burton film, and lyrically he is having a sexual awakening – or at least a realisation of sexual attraction – towards someone he might never have expected to have those feelings for. It feels like he is circling a nemesis before a final battle and perhaps realising they should make love, not war.

Although the first third of Act 2 is typical Taemin brillance, the album loses stride in the second, transforming from elaborate fast-paced footwork into a gentle waltz. One of the most anticipated songs on this album is “Be Your Enemy”, which features one of K-pop’s best vocalists, Wendy from Red Velvet. A typical romantic pop song built on warm guitar that is unabashedly reminiscent of Ed Sheeran, Taemin urges someone to tell him all the pain they’ve been through so that they can be unburdened from it. Although it is a sweet sentiment, the song itself is a bit anticlimactic for two of SM’s best singers to collaborate on. Unlike “Heart Stop” (a collaboration with Red Velvet’s Seulgi on Taemin’s second album Move), “Be Your Enemy” does not possess the similar edge and punch. It would also have worked better as a conventional duet, with Wendy taking over the second verse and chorus harmonies – instead it feels like she leaves as quickly as she arrives.

Following track “Think Of You” has a very similar vibe to “Be Your Enemy”, except this time Taemin is the one showing a more vulnerable side – that even the cold glint in his eye can thaw for the right person. An upbeat romantic bop with background vocals drenched in vocoder, it conveys the relief in being able to depend on someone’s affection to alleviate their sadness.

Although a terrific showcase of Taemin’s beautiful voice, the album truly veers away from its pop beginnings with a pair of syrupy and saccharine love songs. “Pansy” is a stripped-down guitar ballad with all the trite trimmings as it talks about finding someone who makes you feel you exist purely to love them. “How lucky am I, am I, am I?” he repeats in the refrain, almost as if he’s trying to convince himself that this was definitely how he envisioned the album’s direction.

“I Think It’s Love” is a piano ballad that has a similar vibe to his song “Rise”, but without the triumph or its epic nature. It has to yet again be emphasised: Taemin’s voice is wonderful on these tracks, and if listeners are a fan of ballads then there is plenty here to love. However, these songs are the definition of romantic schlock and will cause people to either swoon or roll their eyes. Even with the album’s overall concept of duality, there are definitely more interesting ways to musically explore the softer side of the singer.

The best example of this is the album’s tear-jerking conclusion and overall highlight “Identity”. A compulsive ballad with soaring strings, it lyrically portrays Taemin grappling with loss and grief. In the chorus, the line “Ace to base” is an emotional reference to his first mini-album Ace and fellow SHINee member Jonghyun’s mini-album Base. By establishing this connection, this song becomes a beautiful and very personal tribute to his bandmate and friend who tragically passed away in 2017. Both retrospective and future-facing – in alignment with the album’s concept of duality – the production expands into drums and the strings become more urgent as Taemin’s expressive vocals concede that he will always carry this pain. It is only through this acknowledgement of grief that he can reach acceptance. It is a very poignant moment, not just on this album but in his entire discography.

Never Gonna Dance Again: Act 2 is ultimately an effective contrast against Act 1, proving that Taemin always has new aspects of character and performance to reveal. However, the brighter and more romantic songs often feel too conventional and formulaic without the exciting twists and turns that his song “Idea” implemented. Those who have gotten comfortable with the dark sonic world of the singer might feel a little displaced and disappointed here, but this remains an overall pleasant listening experience. The project as a whole should be admired, as Taemin seems to be on a quest to explore and accept his multifaceted identity. Even the album’s title implies a halt or suspension between two worlds, which seemingly cannot be reconciled. Yet, through his cool demeanour and vulnerability on display, it is clear that his inner conflict has been resolved. It reads like a fable with the moral that one will never find peace until they can accept the good, bad and ugly of themselves and that nobody is ever just one thing.

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