[Album Review] IU – Modern Times

IU-Modern_Times

After a relatively long period of silence from the Nation’s Little Sister, IU finally dropped her third full album, “Modern Times”. What’s so great about this album? Jazz, jazz, and more jazz. The theme for this release is Roaring Twenties jazz, a throwback to the carefree, extravagant nature of the 1920s in the US. Out of all of the decades that I had to study for AP US History back when I was in high school, I was particularly enraptured by this decade, perhaps because of the jazz music that was prominent during this decade or the classy fashion of this era. Making an homage album to such a grand era is indeed an ambitious task and there have been a multitude of k-pop artists trying jazz on for size lately but I believe this release did an especially spectacular job at capturing the essence of jazz and translating it into a digestible form fit for k-pop.

Love of B / 을의 연애

The first track begins with IU seductively counting, leading to some acoustic guitar instrumentation. IU’s slightly breathy, very smoky crooning really fits the whole gypsy-jazz vibe this track was vying for. I really enjoyed IU’s progressively bluesy vocals and how, by the end of the song, you can hear the frustration and anger vibrating from her voice. The guitar riff in the background and the guitar lines during the breaks of the song were extremely welcomed touches to this song and allowed for a very authentic listen. This track is very fitting for the opener of this album because it instantly establishes that jazzy vibe of the album and sets the bar for the album high. You know this will be an album of high caliber as soon as this opener plays. The vibrant and acoustic instrumentation and jazzy vocals are evidence of an ambitious project and that guitar lick at the end entices the listener to continue the album.

Everyone Has Secrets / 누구나 비밀은 있다 (feat. Ga In of Brown Eyed Girls)

Pairing up with Ga In for this track, IU ramps up the pace of the album a bit with a bossa nova, Latin pop track. The instrumentation is very upbeat and the percussion is particularly energetic and is one of my favorite elements of this song. Ga In’s participation in this track was not arbitrary as her more mature and slightly smokier voice helps IU out greatly in this track. The dramatic instrumentation of this song is calling for a certain level of maturity and theatrics that Ga In has experience with, as demonstrated by her earlier releases such as “Irreversible”. That’s not to say that IU hasn’t achieved this maturity; I believe she just needed that extra oomph in the vocal department and Ga In helps add an additional layer of vocals so IU can keep up with the dramatic and vivacious instrumentals. IU’s voice isn’t exactly suited for upbeat dance tracks like this one because her delicate vocals usually shines in downtempo tracks but, with Ga In’s help, she pulls it off. A very brave move on her part and a very commendable effort indeed.

IU - Modern Times

Between the Lips (50cm) / 입술 사이

This next track continues to augment the sensuality of the album as IU takes another page from jazz. The coffeehouse jazz instrumentation, complete with the snaps, horn section, and acoustic guitars, to the grandiose percussion all create a very sensual soundscape. IU’s vocals in this track especially is jazzy and seductive. Her vocal prowess really shines here through her jazzy vocal runs during the climactic end and, during certain parts of the song, the wispy, hush-hush quality of her voice, which is very characteristic of jazz. I love how this song plays around with dynamics, tricking the listener into thinking the song has ended but continuing the song regardless. Another aspect I like is how this song kind of teeters back and forth from quiet to brash as it saunters on, as if the speaker is intoxicated by love and can’t exactly think straight.

The Red Shoes / 분홍신

The opener fakes you out a bit because you would expect this track to be IU returning to her orchestral pop roots but the jazz returns once the actual song picks up. In a way, this is a compromise between that orchestral pop that IU is renown for and the jazz sound that she is going for in this album. The upbeat, big band jazz horns, piano, percussion, and guitar fuse with the theatrics and strings of IU’s orchestral pop to form this very solid, very catchy lead single. If you jazzed up “You & I”, I think it would sound something like this. Some interesting musical choices that I particularly enjoyed include the nonsensical scatting (“oompadoompadoomdoobydooby”), the key change at the end (very fittingly dramatic and over the top), the accelerando at the very end, and the jazzy vocal samples during the pre-choruses (“na nana na na”). The overall feel of the song is very 1920s, with its over the top frivolity and high energy fun, making for a very potent upbeat leading track.

IU - Modern Times

Modern Times

I have to say, the vocals that are showcased in this swing jazz track are just amazing. IU’s falsetto is just lovely to listen to and she has that added, unexpected force behind her voice as well. I just love the very happy, light, bouncy feel of this song. From the syncopated piano line to the ukelele in the background to the grandiose horns to the bright melodies of the song, everything just sounds so downright jubilant. The lyrics match the optimism conveyed by the instrumentation as IU reassures you that everything will be ok (“gwaenchanayo”) and I feel like this song is one of the ones on this album that does the best job as a throwback to the Roaring Twenties because it accurately conveys the optimism associated with the economic prosperity that the US experienced during this era. And, seriously, who would hate this song when IU references “Mr. Chaplin” in the lyrics?

Bad Day / 싫은 날

If anyone deserves to be given the title of a true k-pop artist, it would be IU. The fact that she wrote and arranged this emotional ballad is very impressive, especially in a genre where it’s all about performing what is given to you because you need to keep up with the competition. The piano line combined with IU’s equally beautiful vocals in the very beginning and end of the song resonated with me so much that I almost tear up every time I listen to it. The loneliness and wistfulness from the lyrics are realized beautifully through IU’s vocals and I think that it’s a result of her intimate connection with the lyrics – since she wrote it, she knows how the song should be performed, how the lyrics should be conveyed, how the instrumentation should sound to capture the feelings of the lyrics. The emotional release during the section right before the ending is one of the standout moments of this entire album but I think the most beautiful part of the song is how IU concludes with vocals that are so tragically vulnerable. I think it contrasts greatly with her past orchestral pop releases because it sounds so real. The fact that she acknowledges the bad in her life shows that she is maturing. She cannot be a kid forever and she cannot just sing about lofty dreams and desires. Very emotional and very well-crafted, I have to give my kudos to IU.

IU - Modern Times

Obliviate

Returning back to some jazz, the Latin influence on this release in general is very evident in this track. IU’s melisma at the end of pre-choruses in this song works well to amp up the drama and intensity of this song. There’s a certain amount of tension involved in this song that drives this song forward that makes for a very interesting listen.

Walk with Me, Girl / 아이야, 나랑 걷자 (feat. Choi Baek-ho)

More Latin influences through the guitar instrumentation used though I’m not particularly fond of the featured vocalist in this song. It may just be my preferences here but I just think his voice is too reminiscent of traditional Korean music and is a little off-putting within the context of a laid back jazz track like this one. The vocal quality of Choi Baek-ho’s voice also clashes with IU’s too, in my opinion, and detracts from the song. Not the strongest track on the album but, if this is to be the weakest track, this is already one damn amazing album, because it’s not that bad.

IU - Modern Times

Havana

The song is introduced by a dramatic strings section that leads to some bossa nova. I really enjoyed the flamenco guitar licks and the vocal samplings at the bridge of the song (right after that intense flamenco guitar improv section) that really solidifies that Latin influence. It’s details like these that sets “Modern Times” from other releases because the producers knew not to sacrifice musical integrity and authenticity for efficiency.

A Gloomy Clock / 우울시계 (feat. Jonghyun of SHINee)

It’s very fitting that the song would feature a clock’s ticking as a part of its percussion section. For fans of IU’s eclectic, quirky pop sound, this song must be dedicated to them. This song is filled with quirky musical choices such as bubbling sounds, whistling, and xylophones. This song does get repetitive after a while but the various layers of the song keep things interesting for the most part. Jonghyun does a very good job as a featured vocalist here as his lower tones and his particular vocal quality works well to contrast with IU’s delicate vocals. I particularly enjoyed the guitars in this song as it gave it a distinct indie vibe to this song and made the overall feel very comforting and light.

IU - Modern Times

Daydream / 한낮의 꿈 (feat. Yang Hee-eun)

From here, the album takes a detour to folk. The very light and flowing acoustic guitar arpeggiating in the background sounds very nice in conjunction with IU’s vocals. The featured vocalist here really helps give this song a distinctly Korean sound and the contrast between IU and Yang Hee-eun sounds perfect. I love the tension conveyed in the choruses as it helps move the song along as opposed to just letting the softer verses take over. The harmonies in this song were really nice to listen to and, rather than the voices melting into one, it was more like the two vocals were cooperating and co-existing with each other, with both vocals being disparate from each other but still working well together. All in all, a very pleasant track to listen to.

Wait / 기다려

I just love the rumba riff used here (if you’re diggin’ that riff, here’s another song that uses the same riff but in a major key instead – “Crick Crack” by The Lovers) and the very interesting and lively beat in this song. Very clever title for the track though as we literally have to wait until the 1:40 mark for IU’s vocals to come in. The percussion in this song is especially dominant and is the driving force in this song and IU’s vocals seem to ride the beat and her whispering at the end (“gidaryeo”) was a very nice touch. This track wraps up the album pretty nicely as it revisits the jazz vibe that this album essentially was a showcase of one last time and ends the album on a rather suspenseful note as IU is telling us that she is waiting. Waiting for what? The lyrics are a little ominous and, unfortunately, there are many limitations to translation and so I cannot comment much more but, regardless, this song is a very novel way of ending an album and I really like this track for its intricate rhythms and interesting riffs and samples.

IU - Modern Times

Voice Mail (Korean Version)

This is a nice little surprise at the end. Labeled as a bonus track, this track was written and arranged by IU as well, which is, of course, very impressive. This song sounds very reminiscent of one of the tracks on her previous album, “Peach” from “Spring of a Twenty Year Old”. From the familiar guitar arpeggios in the background to the wispy supporting vocal samples, it seems like “Voice Mail” is an upgraded version of “Peach”. The melancholy piano runs and the more subdued vocals give this song a distinctly more mature sound than “Peach”. I particularly enjoyed the falsetto during the choruses and when IU belts out vocalizations during the last quarter of the song. On the instrumental side, I really loved how the muted electric guitar gives way to a magical but melancholy piano line. The beep at the beginning of the song and the automated voicemail message at the end were nice touches, as if this song were a voice mail being sent to someone.

IU - Modern Times

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Conclusion:

Seeing as jazz is the hallmark genre of class and maturity, IU’s purpose for this release is evident – “Modern Times” is an album to reassert her maturity as a 20 year old singer. She has physically grown up and her music must also grow up with her.  Using jazz as a platform to showcase her maturity was a rather successful tactic. Jazz is such a deviation from her orchestral pop that this change would seem drastic to fans of her music. However, she has made it relevant and classy enough to make the change a welcomed one. The genre shift refreshes her image as a k-pop artist and allows her to reinvent herself properly. Also, the coherency of this release further solidified the success of this album. IU had a clear vision, a clear theme for this album and it was realized throughout the entire album. Each track was either laden with jazz influences or exuded a more mature sound.

The caliber of this release is the level at which I wish a lot of other k-pop idols would be releasing. Music takes effort, genuine passion, and integrity. When an artist wants to explore a genre outside of his or her comfort zone, he or she must take care and put in the effort to give due respect to the source material while incorporating his or her own style to the genre. Otherwise, that’s stealing and stealing irreparably destroys an artist’s integrity. I feel that “Modern Times” is the culmination of much research into the genre of jazz and Latin music, incorporation of Korean influences, and, most important, IU’s maturity up until this point. IU and her music has matured gracefully since her last release and I would expect nothing less from one of the most recognized solo artists in k-pop.

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TL;DR

—Recommended Tracks:—

Everybody Has Secrets [upbeat and dramatic jazz piece with sensual vocals from IU and Ga In, dynamic and intense with Latin influences]

Between the Lips [smoky vocals matching very seductive instrumentation, very classy and jazzy] 

The Red Shoes [extremely lively lead single, swing/jazz through and through, exciting and jolly, good pick-me-up for those bad days]

Modern Times [ragtime-style syncopation with a ukelele playing in the back, beautiful and powerful falsetto from IU, another feel-good track]

Bad Day [vulnerable and heartbreaking vocals, wistful piano instrumentation, written and composed by IU]

A Gloomy Clock [quirky musical choices, acoustic guitar gives it a very indie pop feel, very light and pleasant listen, Jonghyun does a very good job as a duet partner]

Daydream [folk sound, soft and relaxing instrumentation, harmonization showcases both singer’s voices, tension in the chorus prevents it from becoming a boring listen]

Wait [trademark rumba riff used very creatively, lots of interesting samples here, you literally wait for IU’s vocals in this song, rather ominous but intriguing closer to an awesome album] 

Voice Mail [Peach 2.0, more mature sounding, a melancholy piano and soft electric guitar provide a very nice instrumental for IU to sing to, the song is literally a voice mail] 

—Not-so-recommended Tracks:—

Walk with Me, Girl [discordant match up between the featured vocalist and IU, the distinctly traditional Korean vocals from Choi Baek-ho do not work well with the jazz instrumentation]

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10 comments

  1. thanks for the review.this is just my opinion but isn’t the vocal sampling in the bridge of ‘havana’ is more associated with african music,as oppose to latin? and your opinion of ‘walk with me’ just take away the magic that i feel before i read your review haha i’d agree with you on that one.

    1. I think the vocal sampling sounds like Portuguese or some South American language to me but that’s just my ear. I can see why you would think it sounds African though but Latin seems to fit better with the elements of the rest of the song. And I am so sorry I took away the magic of that song for you! That was not my intention! If you liked the song, by all means, like it! Differing opinions are always good! 😀

      1. haha no worries.im actually glad to view the song from a different perspective.love the album.but i just wish the drums sound is more prominent in ‘between the lips’.

        I would like to ask you a question if you dont mind.

        officially,the composer of the song ‘bad day’ is IU.but i just thought that it would be really really impressive for a 20 year-old to single-handedly compose that song,with the exception of the sound engineering part of course (the mixing and everything).there are many instruments present in the song so i (no offense) doubt IU really created everything.but if someone co-compose the song with her,shouldnt the person be credited for his/her work? because if there’s no law applied that states that the lyricist/composer should be credited for his/her work even without his/her consent,then hypothetically, an artist can pay someone for the right of the song’s credit.

        so the main question is,if IU is officially credited as the composer,would that means she is,without a doubt,the only composer of the song?

        sorry if i’m not being appropriate by asking this here.thank you 🙂

        1. The lyricist and composer of a song, by law, need to be credited and compensated for their work. IU, in theory, wrote the song – she composed the melodies for the song and the lyrics for the song. Of course, if this song were labeled as an acoustic version, I would believe it more if the track was completely her doing but, of course, her producers probably had a hand in the instrumentation as all producers get that power in every track that gets released. So, to answer your question, IU most likely composed the track and decided how the song should be performed but her producers had the final say in the instrumentation. No worries, ask any questions you would like to ask. 🙂

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