Dissecting BTS’ comeback
“There’s a really interesting thing between Korean and English language. You know love and live right, it sounds really similar,” RM, leader of South Korean boy band BTS, quipped during a radio show interview.
“In Korean, we call love ‘sarang’, and we call people ‘saram’. Love, live, it’s the same word.”
In the same breath, their third Korean studio album “Love Yourself: Tear” feels like a revolving door to self-discovery: One needs to take off his mask and accept his vulnerabilities in order to love and to live.
Love is a spectrum—and so is “Tear”. Each of the album’s 11 tracks has a unique message and sound, but the underlying theme of pain and separation serves as a unifying thread connecting all of love’s many faces.
Breaking musical genres while shattering the notion of ideal and fated love that the band themselves heralded in their previous album is no easy feat. In “Tear’s” first three tracks, BTS departs from the cosmic serendipity of “Love Yourself: Her” and entered a black hole of emptiness and deception. The neo-soul vibe of the opening track “Intro: Singularity” sets the dark tone of the entire album (“Have I lost myself, or have I gained you?”). The gloomy tone follows through with the main track, “Fake Love”. The song’s hip-hop beats that merged with grunge rock guitar sounds are certainly no elements of a fairytale.
But perhaps the most surprising track in the album is “Truth Untold”, a piano ballad they co-produced with Steve Aoki. With a piercing silence that revealed the individual strengths of the vocal line (Jin, Jimin, Taehyung and Jungkook), the track is a slow burn of feelings where every line speaks like a page from a diary. Its imagery is piercing: “Full of loneliness/This garden bloomed/Full of thorns/I can’t show you a ruined part of myself/Once again I put a mask and go to see you.”
For the most part, the tracks focus on the sides of love that BTS wants to run away from. Unveiling love’s dark side is a process, and RM puts it succinctly: “If you aren’t true to yourself, the love won’t last.”
The songs “134340” and “Outro: Tear” tackle the theme of letting go like polar opposites. The jazzy and soulful track, a reference to former planet Pluto, is sensual and witty (“I still revolve around you without a name”) and flows like a highly personal but lightweight poetry. Outro: Tear, meanwhile, is reminiscent of their Cypher tracks—the band’s rapline (RM, J-Hope and Suga) wore their heart on their sleeve, exposed their fears, and left them all on the field.
In their previous albums, BTS emphasized the importance of self-love. “Loving yourself is the hardest”, as the band members would say. But in this album, BTS came prepared to face their imperfections. In fist-pumping anthem tracks “Anpanman” and “So What”, the Bangtan boys with humble roots have shattered their idealism while accepting the fleetingness of success. This level of safe-awareness made them enjoy the journey even more, as evident in their Latin Pop-infused track “Airplane pt. 2”: “Same sky, same scar, same work/ Everyday above the clouds.”
BTS also went back to their contemporary R&B roots with “Paradise” and “Love Maze”. But unlike their old tracks “Like” and “Miss Right”, BTS traded childish affection for a more uncertain but mature kind of love. Paradise is reassuring (“It’s alright to stop/There’s no need to run without even knowing the reason”), while Love Maze is comforting (“I’ve never been on a calculating love/I know it’ll be cold like winter/Let them be them/Let us be us.”)
But when all is said and done and BTS takes off their masks to show who they are to fans. “Magic Shop”, produced by main vocalist Jungkook, is the perfect self-reflexive track. In this song dedicated to their ARMY, the band’s golden maknae (youngest) captured the beauty of finding your guiding stars in a galaxy of confusion: “On days where I hate myself for being me, on days where I want to disappear forever/Let’s make a door/It’s in your heart/Open the door and this place will await.” This self-love is BTS’ true magic shop.
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