IU is back with a brand new album! CHAT-SHIRE, the seven-song EP, was released to much fanfare on October 23 (in honor of lead single, “Twenty-Three”). But IU’s own massive success makes it near-impossible for anything like a unbiased review. Here at Critical Kpop, however, that’s exactly the kind of review we want. So rather than assign this review to a long-time listener, I’ve been tasked with giving a full, honest account.
Full disclosure: I’m not an IU fan. Crazy as it may sound, I’ve never given much attention to the nation’s little sister, which gives me a huge advantage while listening to her latest release. It doesn’t do our readers, our site, or even our favorite Kpop artists any good if all we post about a new album is a string of emoji that start with elation and get progressively closer to orgasm. A gif of someone’s head exploding doesn’t qualify as discourse. All too often in Kpop we sacrifice meaningful content for raw emotion, especially when it comes to talking about big artists.
So where to begin with CHAT-SHIRE? With “Shoes” of course! The first song on the album is the one that grabbed me by the collar and forced me to spend my weekend under IU’s spell, something I really wasn’t planning on. Being wildly different from my own expectations for the album, “Shoes” set an important precedent for what was to come. Although it’s the first of many commonly-titled songs in a rather quotidian tracklist (e.g. shoes, the shower, knees, glasses), the song is anything but normal. “Shoes” leads the album off with a heavy disco element that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bee Gees song. IU’s voice, however, carries more of a natural, folksy color that blends to create something I’d describe as “smoothe disco.” The disco peeks in and out of the song (and the rest of the album), to be alternated by a more traditional pop sound.
This blending of genres and seeming free-reign to explore would come to define the album for me. The title of the album, CHAT-SHIRE, recalls the Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland (both in the word cheshire and in “chat” being French for cat), a character famous for its inscrutable smile. Add to that the idea of a chat being an informal dialogue, and you’ve got a decent description for the whole album: informal and inscrutable.
Next on the album is “Zezé,” darker and more mature in sound, and perfectly placed between the lighter “Shoes” and “Twenty-Three.” Although there are still a few strands of disco, and even an R&B flavor to IU’s vocals, the overriding genre here is pop. This is typified by the oft-repeated, four-note piano riff, reminiscent of Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time,” and which gives the impression that this song could take off in another direction at any moment. That it stays so perfectly on course is testament to IU’s talent and control as a singer. The blend of styles, here and throughout CHAT-SHIRE, creates a positive tension well-worth the cost of admission.
“Twenty-Three” is where the album establishes itself thematically. It's a playful romp through an Alice in Wonderland styled world, where IU gets to show her weird side. And it should be a requirement, when watching the music video, to have the lyrics open on another screen. Unlike the standard Kpop drivel, IU is actually saying something here. The lyrics suggest that she’s at a crossroads: is she an adult or is she young and immature? IU isn’t sure, and neither are we. But more than uncertainty, or even inscrutability, the line that struck me was IU’s admission of her anxiety over what others think of her. “People are always kind to me. / The woman saying hello to me / Is she still smiling after going round the corner? / I’m always anxious.” While this is a sentiment that can be understood by each of us, the idea is intensified by IU’s fame. Considering how unbelievably positive her career has been so far, it is not hard to see how anxiety must build for her between each and every release.
She must wonder, at times, whether it could possibly be true that she hasn’t set a foot wrong throughout her career. Is CHAT-SHIRE actually a good album? Can reviews like this one be trusted? For IU, I think that self-doubt only makes her work harder to reinvent herself with each song. IU is only twenty-three. She’s got a long future ahead of her, but she’s going to do her own thing. And this song is a good example of that, blending elements of jazz and disco to create pop music that intentionally understands itself differently.
“The Shower,” however, slows things down with a much more one-dimensional folk song. The synthesized disco, jazz, and pop sounds disappear during this track as IU sings over an acoustic guitar and an accordion. Thankfully, “Red Queen” continues where “Twenty-Three” had left off, with a mixture of pop and an old-school jazz feel. The song wouldn’t be out of place on Lee Hyori’s most recent album, but IU’s higher and more breathy voice, along with Zion.T’s signature sound, makes it new.
“Knees” is an unfortunate deviation from an otherwise cohesive album ("The Shower" aside). A slow song accompanied by soft piano and violin, it fails to resonate. For the first time, the quotidian nature of the song titles starts to feel oppressive and boring. It’s a nice song, a beautiful song, even, but it doesn’t match the big picture of CHAT-SHIRE. Rather than advocate for the removal of slow songs (every album needs ups and downs), “Knees” could easily be skipped over in favor of “Glasses.” The song evokes a late-night jazz club, smoke enveloping IU as her sultry voice enchants the audience. The jazz harbors a Caribbean sound that transfers to traditional pop during the rise, before blending together in the refrain. “Glasses” haunts even as it entices. It’s a song that shows both IU’s roots and her more recent exploration into other genres. It’s a perfect way to end an album that is both inscrutable and a sonic masterpiece. And that’s coming from a non-IU fan. CHAT-SHIRE is not perfect. But it would be with the removal of two songs that did not fit the album's concept. For that, I give IU's latest release a very strong A-.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.