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Article. Randy Suh (Music Writer)
Photo Credit. BIGHIT MUSIC

The sense of nostalgia that “the retro” can evoke is fascinating. There’s something romantic about longing for those times that we can never return to. There’s also a new word that’s crept up recently: anemoia. Anemoia is defined as a kind of nostalgia felt for things of old that you never actually experienced firsthand. Futurists may worry about young people becoming wrapped up in the past instead of innovating, but neither can they deny the usefulness of the vast well of culture humanity has amassed and the appeal of dipping into it. The present is sharp and vivid. Rather than lose their vividness, things from the past have cooled just enough that we can behold them in our hands. Their sharpness, too, weathers with the years, worn down to comfortable curves. Only the things that were beautiful in their own time ever stick around long enough to become retro. Those things are nostalgic to us, even though we weren’t there for the original—as if our insignificant little lives have been stretched back into the past.

 

V loves everything old. You can tell how much he likes nostalgic things, especially those that feel cozy and lyrical, just by listening to the songs he’s written, those he’s covered, and what he’s said in interviews. Layover, his first solo EP, builds on that love of the past. Produced by ADOR CEO MIN HEE JIN, the new album is the impressive result of a collaboration between her expertly crafted modern take on 20th-century nostalgia and V’s own interpretive and expressive skills.

“Love Me Again,” the first single released ahead of the EP, came accompanied by a music video. It’s a dreamy feast for the eyes and ears all at once. The video alternates between a cinematic 21:9 letterbox and an imitation of an old convex CRT monitor, opening with an extreme close-up on the singer’s face and holding tight right through to the very end.

 

It’s only after you’ve watched the whole video utterly glued to the screen that you realize that everything about it is over the top: a mysterious limestone cave (the Caves of Drach, in Spain); his top made entirely of sequins (of an intense gold, almost fiery color); a karaoke machine straight out of the 20th century, complete with CRT display and fuzzy text; a long, wired microphone; lights that pierce every corner of the screen with bokeh. Put all together, it evokes nearly the same exact atmosphere as the tacky basement karaoke rooms that dotted downtown Seoul in the 2000s, but narrowly avoids coming across as garish. And that’s because the most eye-catching part of the whole video—V himself—is standing calmly in the middle of it all. It takes a lot of different moving parts coming together to make K-pop happen, but it’s ultimately best appreciated as a star-driven art through and through, likely because it’s an industry that revolves around idols and their dedicated fans. The best K-pop artists draw your attention such that you can’t look away until they’re finished giving a performance that leaves their audience dazzled.

 

V has a storied history of using his wide spectrum of self-expression, and it seems to come from equal parts dedication and raw talent. When, in “No More Dream,” he pulled off the perfect facial expression as he whips his glasses off his face in time to the sound of gunfire, it was hard to believe this was his debut song. His acting in live performances of “Boy In Luv” during his “orange-haired guy” era calls to mind the wild and free bad boy—and, importantly, simple-hearted—male leads of 2000s-era Korean web novels typified by Internet novelist Guiyeoni. In one word, he was the model boyfriend archetype that had been so wildly popular with the teen generation of that earlier time. You can feel him hitting a wild zenith with what he does for the outro to the song “FIRE,” dancing in the center of the group and pushing things even higher to their very peak with his white-hot energy. And then, lighter songs like “Boyz with Fun” and “Dynamite” give a full look at his uniquely mischievous side. In BTS’s most hard-hitting songs, he comes across as a wild animal broken free from his cage. ARMY goes as far as to compare him to a tiger when he performs like that.

 

But there’s also a poetic side to V. Stepping off the stage, that flash of madness disappears from his eyes and he’s back to being the friendly boy with the low and calm voice. It’s as though he goes through life always looking for romance flitting through the air all around. The majority of the songs he’s written have been simple folk tunes or emotional ballads with just one or two backing instruments. He makes music worth coming back to again and again with minimal arrangement, beautifully capturing the emotions of a time and place, and longing in particular. One anecdote recalls V asking to take home the roses used on set in a magazine shoot right around the time of his debut—as explicit an example of his search for the romantic in the ordinary as any. ARMY have another nickname for him when discussing his soft, poetic side: the “gomdori,” or the teddy bear.

 

“Love Me Again” is a song that sounds straight out of 1970s soul and a fitting continuation of the neo soul-like songs he’s put out under BTS. Musician Iris Stevenson—the real-life inspiration for the movie Sister Act—met a young V through American Hustle Life on Mnet in 2014 and said he had the kind of soulful voice that leaves you wanting more. It’s this distinct emotive pull that permeates V’s vocals so thoroughly, one that’s soft and rich but not overly heavy. And, judging by the way he sings here and there in the group’s series Run BTS, he’s got a good ear for music. His vocals are undeniably unique—the way he glides from note to note, a sweet and warm lushness one might associate with a blurry photo or a pastel painting. You can hear his languid, mellow style on de facto solo songs off BTS albums like “Stigma” and “Singularity.” Such tracks are not something you hear very often in the world of K-pop, but it’s practically tailor-made for V.

 

The solo songs V put out back then were pretty minimalistic, but his new music is even more laid-back than before. Even the most vaguely flashy sound, like the occasional brass instrument, is buried deep in the music. The musical structure isn’t particularly grand either: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, second verse, pre-chorus, chorus … a short refrain, the chorus again, and the end. In the refrain of pleading for his loved one to return to him, the melody, the instrumentation, even V’s vocals are all subdued. “Love Me Again” doesn’t force its loneliness onto the former partner, nor the listener. It might sound like this would come across as borderline pedestrian, but if you consider the style V has always worked in and the minimalism MIN HEE JIN has become known for while producing for NewJeans, it’s easy to guess at their intentions and see how they arrived at the sound they did. V revealed on August 11 over Weverse Live that he loves the song especially so.

“Rainy Days,” the second single from V’s new album, is an R&B track driven by a lo-fi hip hop beat. You know—the genre that exploded on YouTube in the 2010s and became the background soundtrack to the whole world. It became popular to take ordinary music and make it vintage by running it through a filter to make it sound like it’s playing over an old-timey radio using Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 synth. And this is still the go-to sound for chill beats today. The aim of lo-fi is to conjure up images of the previous century, when the radio was still king. V’s song similarly aims to emphasize the qualities that make it sound retro.

 

Like “Love Me Again,” the music video for “Rainy Days” was shot in Spain—specifically, at Torres Blancas, a famous piece of Spanish organic architecture. One of the trends that’s swept TikTok this year is “tomato girl summer”: lively, comfortable fashion choices paired with relaxation under the golden sun with the mountains, fields, and beaches of Europe all around, particularly countries to the south like Spain and Italy. The trend was inspired by all that’s wrapped up in the fantasy of the summer vacation in Europe seen in movies like Call Me by Your Name. V’s song feels like the evening that follows the sun setting on this fad: still warm and comfortable, but with the tint of wistfulness that comes from seeing the passion of the day disappear.

 

The most attention-grabbing part of the song is its sudden key change. The first verse is in G major, using a seemingly endless progression of CM7–D7–Bm7–Em7, after which things drop abruptly to the A minor bridge and its FM7–Em7–Am7 progression. When he sings, “Remember how I used to make you laugh the most,” he’s singing at the E, a sharp from the B at the core of the opening verse. It feels like the singer is moving closer and closer to the listener with his captivating baritone. V is presented as a creative type in the video, jumping between locations as we watch him at work in his studio shaping clay or painting on glass. It’s nice to revisit the familiar 3D-animated visuals we’ve seen before in BTS’s music videos and live performances—in this case, a chorus of clay V heads.

 

After the second verse changes things up, the song comes back around to the chorus, but it holds on to the low, imploring minor A chord rather than returning to a major G. In essence, what you’re hearing in the chorus at the end isn’t quite the same, imparting instead an out-of-place feeling. The song may seem like just a mellow tune at first, but with this added contrast, the deep vocals in the second verse come across as much more melancholy. This same choice makes it feel like the music is offering a metaphor—that, even if life returns to normal following some sad event, things will never quite be the same.

 

The way V expresses longing in Layover is like one continuous wave, soft and delicate in its movement. The songs feel less like a singer crying out for someone they miss, but more like a purposefully written postcard sent just to drop a hushed hello. In looking to sound retro, V chooses to take his music in a calm, comfortable direction, like a deliberate step away from the hustle and bustle of the present. It’s as though his music casts a short-lived spell over the breakneck flow of time to sit back and savor the everyday in deep nostalgic thought. I like to imagine that V took the rare step in K-pop of releasing these songs a month or so before the full EP with the hope that listeners would at least have something to listen to and bring them inner calm as they go about their lives—thinking that it would take time for the music to ripen in his listeners’ alongside their own things to long after.

 

This all makes me think of something V said in an article printed in Weverse Magazine last year: “I like the feeling of longing. When I’m alone, it makes me think beautiful thoughts. I could be longing for performing, or it could be directed toward the other members, or I could be feeling overwhelming affection. But, anyway, those beautiful feelings collect one by one and become a song” (“V paints a picture through his music”). Longing stems from a lack, and sometimes, in certain situations, can even be painful, but V nonetheless patiently faces those feelings head-on.

 

There’s something uniquely sensitive about V that he can call such yearning beautiful. If I had to guess, I’d say what’s made him that way is his realization that there’s no way to relive the past, that he had to endure the pandemic years that left him isolated from his fans, that there’s a new normal even now after the doors to the world have reopened, and whatever wistful feelings he’s experienced as a result of his celebrity. But it’s touching to know there’s an artist for whom a sense of longing isn’t something debilitating but an emotion that makes him a more beautiful person. The boy who, in “4 O’CLOCK,” once waited up with his friend until dawn, has grown into an incredibly bold, and still wonderfully sensitive, artist—and he just keeps growing.

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