And now the Wonder Girls are back with a brand new album and instruments in tow. Not only are their hopes and dreams all riding on this album, but it’s also probably the most ambitious Kpop comeback in years. No pressure, right? But will Reboot kickstart the Wonder Girls’ flailing careers, or will this be another forgotten release in a busy summer? Let’s find out.
First things first. Reboot is a full-length album with a surprisingly old school feel. From the first note, the listener is taken back to late ‘80s nostalgia when women were black widows and synth pop ruled the airwaves. And, well, Wonder Girls stays surprisingly true to that concept. The easiest way to describe Reboot would be to say that it could easily slot into Paula Abdul’s discography without anyone being the wiser.
While this creates an album that feels cohesive, it also might be to the Wonder Girls’ detriment. The ‘80s music style is not geared towards the production of club bangers, and this album very noticeably contains none. “I Feel You” is the lead single for the album, though you wouldn’t guess it. It’s a functional song, but would hardly stand out on a B-side. There’s little in the way of a hook and nothing memorable about the music. In fact, the best part of the song might be YeEun’s elongation of some of her notes, reminiscent of Prince’s vocal play in “Little Red Corvette.” That’s hardly enough for a lead single. In a comeback showcase interview, the Wonder Girls noted that they chose “I Feel You” as their lead single because “it sounded really fresh.” Of course the fact that JYP produced it had nothing to do with their choice whatsoever.
JYP had a group to reinvent, that much is clear. The idea to sell Wonder Girls as musicians was an inspired one, and sure to generate a lot of press. But what kind of music would they play? Kpop is entirely synthesized, which isn’t a bad thing for a group that just began serious musical training. But JYP needed a bold new comeback that would set Wonder Girls apart from current Kpop music. So he put two and two together and searched for an era of pop music in which live instrumentation was equally as unimportant as the current era. JYP wisely skipped the instrument-heavy mid and late nineties, which saw the rise of modern rock, grunge, garage, punk, post, and alternative. And on the other side, he found the ‘80s, a perfect blend of pop, powerful women, and synthesizers. Thus, Reboot was born.
Following a very strong and cohesive opening to the album (notwithstanding the lack of a great lead single), the mid section of Reboot is full of highs and lows. “Rewind” slows things down a bit, mainly through a very tired sounding refrain. While the upbeat music drives “Rewind” forward, the monotony of the hook drags it right back. The women sound positively pained to be singing the lyrics at times. Their decision to perform “Rewind” at Music Bank was, frankly, shocking. Even chair choreography couldn’t save it.
“Loved” and “One Black Night” are the highlights of the mid-section, and maybe even the album. Both songs feel so much more weighty and expansive than the songs around them. While “Loved” maintains the strong synth roots of the album, “One Black Night” edges closer to the current Kpop sound. It feels more like a blending of the two, and aside from some egregious rapping, is a great song that shows growth rather than mimicry.
“John Doe,” stuck in the middle of “Loved” and “One Black Night” is the kind of song that could have been sung by literally any girl group in Kpop. In a blind taste test, I would be absolutely unable to identify Wonder Girls as the performers. It’s an obvious mid-section filler song. Which brings us to “Back,” a song whose lyrics are difficult to listen to, and even worse to read.
We Back Back Back
I’m Back Back Back
Back on back, Back on back
We have our backups behind us and we are back
We Back Back Back
I’m Back Back Back
B-A-C-K back we back
We’re back now so go back go pack
I appreciate the attempt to connect the synth pop of the ‘80s with the nascent rap scene that was developing at that same time. But, unfortunately, the playful nature of “Back” is completely overshadowed by the immaturity of the production. And it doesn’t help to be followed up by “Oppa.” I actually really dig the buildup in this one, but the hook loses me. With lyrics like “I wanna go out / I wanna have fun / I wanna dance, dance, dance all night,” it’s difficult not to assume that they have a much younger target audience in mind, an audience which has not yet come to terms with an adult lifestyle.
Which is weird. Wonder Girls are, of course, not very old themselves. But they’re not green either. They debuted over eight years ago, and have toured the world promoting their music. This album is very much a comeback, and even the title, Reboot, is intended to show a much different side of Wonder Girls. A more mature side. They are veterans now, returning with all the accumulated knowledge of their years in show business (this is another reason they are channeling the ‘80s, no, to show their mature years?). Instead, all of the illusion of childhood is still there.
“Faded Love,” only the second slow song of the album, is a much needed break. Which is good, because after “Back” and “Oppa,” I was about ready to stuff the album in my trapper keeper and never unzip it. “Faded Love” has a much more mature feel. It retains some of the synth feel, but finally seems to have transformed that style into something new. Ignoring the last two songs of the album, “Gone” and “Remember,” which seem to be true filler, “Faded Love” is where I would like to have left the album.
The Live Performance
At the time of writing, Wonder Girls have so far performed in Music Bank (8/7/15), Show! Music Core (8/8/15), and Inkigayo (8/9/15). Of those performances, Inkigayo was the most fun and the most assured. Some of that has to do with becoming comfortable on stage, so the third performance in as many days will feel more practiced than the first. But another major part of it has to do with song selection. See above for why “Rewind” and “Back” failed to impress. Without a doubt, “Candle” made a bigger impression at Inkigayo.
But honestly, reviewing Wonder Girls’ performances on the major music shows isn’t very helpful, as none of them are set up for live instrumentation. Given that a hefty portion of the Wonder Girls’ comeback campaign has been reliant on promoting as musicians (they’re in a band now, did you hear?), to adequately review their comeback we need to see them performing live. And seeing as how they already admitted to not recording any of the instrumentation on their album, our only option is Yoo Hee Yeul’s Sketchbook.
During the segment, Wonder Girls performed “Nobody,” “Tell Me,” a mashup of their teasers, and “I Feel You.” It should be immediately apparent from the song selection that Reboot was in no way ever envisioned as an album to be performed live. This should have been an opportunity for Wonder Girls to perform three or four of their best new songs. Instead, they brought out old material and had to rework their teaser segments to fill the time.
I can’t complain too much, however. The reworked version of the 2012 song “Nobody,” though a little toned down, a little slow, was actually a killer rendition. The Wonder Girls sounded great, and their instrumentation was spot on. The only thing missing from their performance was a little showmanship. They looked completely frozen on stage, maybe by nerves.
But “Tell Me” fixed that. The Wonder Girls used their 2007 hit song as a clever way to work a few instrumental solos into their performance. And rather than fumbling over their instruments, the Wonder Girls absolutely nailed it. After Sunmi finished her solo, a smile broke across her face. Then Hyerim hit her notes, and another smile and a nod to the rest of the group. Finally, they started to have some fun on stage! It wasn’t long after that Sunmi started strutting around the stage. It wasn’t much, just a few walk backs, but it made a huge difference. Finally, they started looking like a band instead of robots. Even the typically badass Yubin cracked a smile! And that confidence and joy was obvious as they began their interview segment.
The Wonder Girls were still riding high off their earlier success when they performed the teaser mashup, and they nailed that one too. Hyerim stole the show, but there’s a reason why the guitar player is so often the frontman of a group - their instrument is the loudest and most noticeable!
And then, the Wonder Girls performed their lead single from Reboot, “I Feel You.” Suddenly, it was very apparent that these rocker chicks were all wearing heels. Yeeun’s keyboard was replaced with a keytar, and Yubin was forced to play a drum set that belonged in a video game (so they could both dance along of course). The band concept gave way to a choreographed line dance involving instruments as props and plenty of hip thrusting. It felt ugly. It felt like an unfair reversion to women being treated like objects, women who had just spent the last fifteen minutes proving that they could rock.
But they were never supposed to rock too hard. They were never supposed to return and wow us with their transformation into mature, independent, adult women; they were supposed to return to exactly where they left off. Reboot is an album with a fun, ‘80s feel, but rather than a mature take on an old genre, JYP would have them return to childhood. They’re still the Wonder Girls, just not wonder women yet.