Review: IU’s CHAT-SHIRE Inscrutably Good


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.

3 comments:

  1. A very nice and informative review!thank you!

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  2. nice review. Though knees and shower were good on their own but it doesn't quite fit the album. IU may actually notice as she share her thoughts in her latest showcase https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pFJDR4myaQ

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  3. This is a very nice review. As a Uaena, I think the fact that you're not that familiar with IU limited you from seeing many of the references embedded in Twenty Three, which in my opinion adds to the ingenuity of the song.

    While IU is considered nation's little sister, her career is not unmarred by Korean scandals. The lyrics "pretend to be a fox that pretends to be a bear / that pretends to be a fox" allude to knetz calling her a sly fox. In a sense, it's her acknowledging all these insults and cleverly using it to her advantage.

    I agree that the song's strongest point is its use of duplicity. People are always trying to make her up in their minds, and at this point in her career she's gotten so used to it that she's also making herself up in her own mind. And she's come to the conclusion that it doesn't matter what she does cause they're always going to do that so she's just going to let them be. They'll never figure her out anyway because she can't even figure herself out anymore either.

    While this is an album review, the music video also lives up to the track's quality. It was pretty edgy coming from a kpop idol (especially that scene referencing to smoking.) It managed to address these issues but at the same time keep the overall ambiance of the video very light and cohesive.

    A lot of people are also saying she's alluding to her character Cindy in "The Producer" who has a lot of similarities with her (the character is also an idol who started at a young age plus the character also has a song called 23)

    Anyway, thank you for writing this review!

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