The past year has seen K-Pop take on rather retrospective genres, what with the explosive success of BTS’ retro-funk ‘Dynamite’, to the impassioned disco-synths of GFRIEND’s latest album ‘Walpurgis Night’, to SEVENTEEN’s swing and jazz-tinted ‘Semicolon’ EP.
In essence, this retrospective view is the main driving force behind most of LILAC, as IU draws on the retro and dance-pop synths of her previous pop offerings, particularly from Palette and Chat-shire, and fuses and elevates the sonic direction from both albums into an album that’s filled with some of her best artistic instincts.
Title track “LILAC” is wistful and nostalgic, yet still joyful and exuberant, as IU waves goodbye to her twenties and boards the train towards her thirties. The track is an ode to the impermanence of youth, as much as it is a warm, joyful greeting towards growing up — IU herself, now approaching her thirties after more than a decade in the spotlight, is a lilac on the brink of full bloom — and with LILAC, she seemingly extends this feeling with listeners, as if inviting listeners to bloom right alongside her, too.
For most of her career, IU has mostly stayed on the more introspective and mellow spectrum of K-Pop, which to this day still remains an admirable feat, considering her superstar status in her her home country. But if anything, LILAC only goes to prove how IU has an expert grasp on the other side of the coin, too, as she delivers her own spin on some of K-Pop’s most-used sounds — retro-funk and dance-pop, to name a few — to deliver a catalogue of music that’s still undeniably of her own.
Each of LILAC’s tracks feel like a universe all on its own, filled with as much sonic variety and playful wistfulness that the very act of listening to the album itself feels so visceral, like diving into a world of whimsy and color, a kind of rabbit hole into IU’s own wonderland.
Joy, especially in trying times like these, is a triumphant, defiant thing. And if anything, IU seems to have a firm understanding of this, as the majority of LILAC’s tracks glimmer with an effervescent quality, a reminder of the kind of pure, unadulterated joy that makes you get up and dance in spite everything going on in the world.
In “Flu”, IU’s vocals are as entrancing as ever, as they soar against a addictively restrained hook and beat, while her own synthesized backing vocals in the bridge elevate the track to pop perfection. The result is a track that’s deceptively simple, yet one of the most evocative on the album.
And like many of the best artists, IU’s biggest strength has always been her songwriting, and her ability to pull expertly-crafted melodies, be it in the form of a ballad, as is on “My sea’”, or an up-tempo dance track like lead single “Celebrity”. She’s also nurtured a fondness for finding comfort in melancholy and beauty in the whimsical, as well as a penchant for lighthearted and yet soulful R&B, both of which she playfully melds together in “Troll”, a collaboration track with R&B artist DEAN, and “Empty Cup”, one of the most melancholy moments on the album. But at her sweetest, IU’s melodies have always taken on a lullaby-like quality, modulating her vocal tones against a variety of musical experiments: at times against a grand backing choir, as is on “My Sea”, or against melodic synth pianos, as in “Hi spring Bye.”
And yet perhaps what might be most familiar to long-time listeners is the closing track “Epilogue”, a mellow, guitar-led track with an easy, laid-back melody that’s reminiscent of some of IU’s earlier offerings, a la Chat-shire or Modern Times, that also acts as a closing letter from IU herself to her fans. It’s in songs like these that remind listeners that IU’s always been most at home in solitude, plucking melodies and couplets seemingly out of thin air, that would later be right at home when sung in an arena, surrounded by thousands of fans who know every word.
This is, after all, IU’s most unique charm as an artist — as well as the secret weapon to her longevity — far from the glare and glimmer of being one of her country’s most sought-after celebrities, there’s nothing more authentic and necessary for IU than the act of connecting — and it’s a superpower that hasn’t lost its effect in all her years in the industry, and is unlikely to do so until the very end of her career.
The past year has undoubtedly been a difficult one for everyone around the globe, but more than anything, LILAC is the best kind of sweet escape from an artist who’s always been profoundly aware of her capabilities, yet always somehow manages tops her own creative limitations in a way that almost feels like magic. It is this particular magic that permeates and sparkles throughout LILAC, and it’s just the kind of magic that makes the world a little more bearable to live in.