SHINee: Don't Call Me
Word of advice: SHINee is a group you must listen to with headphones.
I can't lie, it took me a listen or two to actually connect with Don't Call Me. The main reason I didn't connect with the group's second LP as a quartet is because I was quite literally disconnected. There was a 2-dimensional quality to the album that I'll blame on listening to it the first time through on my phone's speakers. Once I was fully jacked in, however, an entire universe I couldn't even fathom revealed itself to me.
Don't Call Me is a piece of music that deserves your undivided attention. It also proves without a doubt that of the active groups, SHINee is contemporary K-pop's best vocally, no questions asked. They've attained an elite status rivalled only by their seniors in DBSK (when they were five; the band was exceptionally close to SHINee and had a huge hand in their musical development). As five, SHINee had an unparalleled sound, harmonies that were skin-tight and impactful from all angles. As four they're not the same group. And you know what? They're not supposed to be. Jonghyun's presence will always be felt, and his absence will always weigh heavily on the heart of anyone who knew him. In their minds, hearts and souls, SHINee is still a five-piece. But they were never going to sound the same without Johnghyun's anchor. As harsh as it might sound, this ultimately forced them to evolve beyond what they were and what they hope to be.
Don't Call Me is proof positive that no one person was ever bigger than the group. SHINee is a solid unit because each member is a solid vocalist and performer. Their range as four is just as unparalleled as when they were five. A fact more impressive when you consider the latest trend in group dynamics is to add more members to the lineup for one reason or another. Partially to find a musical balance in six-plus members that SHINee has effortlessly found in four without breaking a sweat. Adjustments had to be made, of course. But this is a group of very capable singers, all of whom have their own solo albums to prove the point.
Don't Call Me isn't just about the group's exceptional vocal range. With a new lineup, they have a new musical outlook. One that continues to assert itself following their Story of Light series. Music that rides a very ethereal wave, equal parts deep house and clean pop with mature conventions. Throughout their 13-year career, they've never abandoned one sound for another in an attempt to prove they can stay relevant. Rather, they've always built on their sound, adding elements to their group dynamic and music just as they've added elements to themselves as artists and men. There's a line of continuity from their debut album to Don't Call Me. "Replay," where they proclaim their puppy-love affections for an older girl ("누난 너무 예뻐" literally means, "Big sis, you're so pretty"), to now coming completely into their own as men, getting down on one knee and proposing (obviously second single "I Wanna Marry You").
While lead single and title track "Don't Call Me" didn't endear itself to me at first (again, not until I actually listened to the layering and deceptive simplicity of the harmony work), I can appreciate that this is SM doing what SM does: follows trends. With the explosive success of NCT and their more bombastic R&B inclinations, it makes sense they'd try it on a senior group with a track record of owning any song they're given. With a reputation of being creatively nuanced and innovative, whomever they enlisted to make their music would have some serious work to do. Props where they're due to the producers working on this piece. They understood the assignment. SHINee doesn't need to be over-produced. Doesn't need to be guided by the musical elements (particularly if they didn't have a hand in them). Whatever you give this group, they'll take it, run, skip and jump with it to their SHINee World and turn it into something unrecognizable.
That being said, those who worked on Don't Call Me were smart enough to know exactly who they were working with. They took cues from Story of Light, bits of their solo work and wrapped it up in a mature package of smooth dance music befitting a stroll through London's SOHO ("Heart Attack") and harder-edged elemental house flirting with techno or its younger cousin in EDM ("CODE").
SHINee never lost any of their pop sensibilities. Theirs type of pop has never been readily attributed to bubblegum. Even at their most prepubescent, they had a maturity that was simply a consequence of their vocal abilities and the intricacy of their harmonies. A facet of their musical catalog that only got better with each album. They took a glance backward at the repackage of their most musically dynamic album to date (and one of K-pop's greatest offerings), Odd, with track "I Really Want You" while not stagnating in the past and adding a bit of rare groove to their prismatic pop sound ("Kiss Kiss"). They balanced this with the type of balladry that's not over-saccharine or overbearing in order to elevate the vocal work instead of bury it under melodramatic composition. Track "Kind"... one of the most brilliant pieces of music the group has ever produced. Their harmonic layering has hit a new stride. So transcendent is the vocal work on this album, it's hard to reconcile that warmth and depth with the fact that there are only four of them. Vocals sitting so close to each other in seconds and fifths to add an eerie dissonance not heard from them before.
Taking it a step further, delving into the Atlantis repackage, tracks like "Area" only solidify SHINee's musicality. Subtle harmonies with a playful R&B groove. Is the music spectacular? No. But it does some interesting work with synth in conjunction with the vocal arrangement. I recognize it for what it does. But more respect goes to the group for being able to give even something as surface level as "Area" the added depth to identify it as a SHINee track.
So, yes, Don't Call Me took me a second to get into. But once I wrapped myself in it, putting on my headphones and just listening, it shot to the top of my favorite K-pop releases of 2021. Thus further validating SHINee as the foundation of contemporary Korean pop's dominance.