[JYP Entertainment, Republic Records; 2020]

Since their debut, K-pop sensations TWICE have consistently impressed with how easy they make everything look. While so many Western pop acts struggle to put together a strong body of work every few years, the nine-member group cranks out hits – and even cohesive, consistent releases – yearly, as if recording occurred in their damn sleep.

Yet, if 2020 has proven anything, it’s just how hard things have become for one of Korea’s favorite girl groups. Beset by a stalker, who I really prefer not to give too much acknowledgment here, harsh reality very much came calling for a group that has thus far preferred to delve into fantastical glee.

Indeed, given their massive popularity, it might not occur to the uninitiated just how much of an anomaly TWICE are within the current K-pop climate. Compared to BLACKPINK’s “Sour Candy”, they have remained delectably sweet, inclusive and warm beyond all measure. Less overtly feminist than Red Velvet’s brand of empowerment, TWICE are nonetheless pure positivity, celebrating themselves and, in the process, all women throughout the world. It’s impossible not to be moved by their constant joy, the sense of genuine camaraderie and fun always present in the girls’ work and public presentation.

To be sure, K-pop is a genre that’s eternally marketing, and being fully accessible to fans is nearly a must, but all of TWICE’s supplemental material finds that the women of the group are truly funny, and they always seem to be having a good time. This has, ultimately, led to two major challenges for TWICE. Firstly, preyed upon by the aforementioned stalker, how does a group of such pure sunshine weather such public, alarming trauma? Secondly, even managing to move past that, how does a group so based in youthful joy, well, age?

The K-pop scene, after all, makes even American hip hop look slow-moving. If rap moves in dog years, K-pop might as well be revolving in a firefly’s lifespan: burning bright before zipping out of existence. Mentions of favorites from the apparently long distant age of 2014 are often met with uncertain shrugs from insatiable fans. Recent years have been something of an anomaly however, with no massive girl group arising to truly challenge the likes of TWICE and Red Velvet, leading to extended reigns.

So, then, TWICE’s second full-length Korean LP, Eyes Wide Open, attempts to contend with all these challenges and more, and to be sure, it’s a forward-looking effort in more than just its bold title. While the album absolutely retains TWICE’s absurd knack for earworm verses and hooks, its sound is without a doubt the most mature the group has yet attempted. It draws from the 1980s in particular, slamming through glistening synth-pop (emphasis on pop, naturally) and nostalgic club ballads in equal measure. There’s even an unabashed ode to City pop in the form of “Say Something”.

The likes of “Bring It Back” (penned by member Dahyun, who also handles the ecstatic, affirming “Queen”) are very much rooted in the now, sounding akin to something even Kelela might craft were she a tad more interested in Billboard games, before it implodes into a lightly dubstep-influenced chorus that actually, somehow, someway (gasps), works. “Go Hard” is also the closest to BLACKPINK’s territory into which TWICE have entered, boasting seriously kicked-up production for its hook, and a confrontational, confident vibe. Eyes Wide Open is also, more often than not, written by the group themselves, proving yet again that TWICE’s best material is often when they tackle their own emotions, rather than being influenced by a committee. On the other hand, album closer and serious highlight “Behind the Mask”, which tackles love in the age of COVID, is written by acclaimed Korean songwriter Heize, with even Dua Lipa aiding its composition – an unexpected and exciting collaboration.

If Eyes Wide Open solidifies anything, it’s TWICE’s ever-surprising ability to evolve. The growth from “Cheer Up” to “TT” to “Dance the Night Away” to “Yes or Yes” can be followed like a map to pop success and longevity, with the members taking ever-increasing responsibility of songwriting duties – rather than the other way around – as their profile grew. This latest effort does nothing to upset that impressive trend, comprising their most sophisticated sound and presentation yet, seeing them grow beyond youthful exuberance to deliver pop with a bit more of a weathered, knowing edge. The album may not absolutely burst at the seams like Summer Nights‘ best moments, but here consistency was clearly the name of the game. BLACKPINK can have the global crown, but when it comes to excellence in truly euphoric K-pop, this is still TWICE’s nest in which to roost.

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