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BTS’s new album is sublime comfort pop for the soul in lockdown

Be is essential pandemic pop.

BTS, “Life Goes On,” from their newest album Be, released November 20, 2020
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What do you do after you’ve made world history by becoming the first Korean band — and only the third band ever — to hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100?

If you’re BTS, apparently you keep on working. On Friday, the much-adored K-pop group released Be, their first album since February’s Map of the Soul: 7 dropped at the beginning of the pandemic, and since its summer bop “Dynamite” became their first top-charting single in the US.

The song keeps on breaking ground for the band — it‘s now delivered BTS a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo or Group Performance, just days after Be’s release.

“Dynamite,” not incidentally BTS’s first single entirely in English, seemed to be born out of a recognition that the band was somehow too complex to get American radio play. It was in many ways a major departure from their typical approach to their craft.

So when BTS announced a new album, the question loomed about what kind of album Be would, uh, be: whether it would venture still further away from their previous musical and collaborative styles, or represent a return to their typical mix of rock and hip-hop with the occasional lighter pop thrown in.

Be is a short album, with just seven new tracks alongside “Dynamite.” But nearly all of them are sublime. Taken as a whole, they form a seamless litany of bops intended to commemorate and celebrate getting through the Covid-19 pandemic. Musically, Be is pure pop, all the way down — a loudly retro mix of pop sounds ranging from frothy to funky, melancholic to mellow, filtered through a lens of determined positivity.

The band’s harder, more anthemic sound, which put them on the map and landed their fantastic single “On” at the fourth spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in February, is absent here. And that’s fine, because the album’s message seems to be about staying light, upbeat, and grasping hope wherever possible. As many parts of the US are reentering states of crisis, Be is like a deliberate road map for how we can all get through the next few months: singalongs, good humor, and reliance on the bonds that keep us close.

The Korean pop group BTS.
BTS, Be.

Be is both a proclamation and a promise. It’s okay to rest, it says: to simply exist, to survive, to be. In that sense, the album’s auditory shift toward total pop feels like a completely necessary response to a very difficult year — and indeed, it’s intended to be.

Be opens with the band’s newest single, “Life Goes On,” which dropped at midnight on Friday alongside the album itself. Its theme — the pandemic — is immediately obvious from the accompanying music video, which was directed by band member Jeon Jungkook and opens with a lonely V (Kim Taehyung) driving down a mostly empty highway. He’s intercut with shots of Jungkook glancing wistfully outside his window, as they both reminisce about how “one day the world stopped.”

One by one, the other band members join in, singing good-naturedly about how even though they miss company and activity, even though they’re pursued by melancholy, one day life will return to normal. It’s a sweet, singable song that finds positivity in simplicity — about what you’d expect from a collaboration with songwriter Antonina Armato, who incidentally also wrote the best song ever written: “Bet On It” from High School Musical 2.

Fly to My Room” is next, a jaunty song with a cute Ariana Grande-ish vibe that’s all about turning your room into a fantasy world tour because you’re stuck inside and can’t leave. It’s adorable, and I love it. There’s a faint gospel vibe to both these songs — they wouldn’t feel out of place in, say, a Charlie Puth collaboration — that sets the stage for everything to come. This is pop music as meditation, as solace, as an expression of faith.

The band’s thematic material will be familiar to fans. Here as always, BTS frankly discuss things like mental health and the pressure that goes along with fame. But Be stays airy, even when its lyrics are moody. Each of Be’s eight tracks, including album-closer “Dynamite” and a spoken-word skit in which they poke fun at themselves for being chart-toppers, comes across like a personal reminder that we’re all in this together. Even the album’s lush ballad “Blue & Grey” maintains this feeling of warm energy, although it’s explicitly about dealing with depression and pandemic-induced loneliness. After all, even though the boys say, “I am singing by myself,” they’re still all singing together.

There’s a confessional quality to this number, not only because members of the group co-wrote it — the band co-wrote the entire album — but because BTS’s gorgeous vocals are often the melodic equivalent of an ASMR session. Taekook’s breathy opening verse, followed by Suga and J-Hope’s laidback rhymes, all feel like someone whispering at you across your pillow. (Hiss Noise, who produced Taehyung’s two lovely solo ballads, “Winter Bear” and “Sweet Night,” also co-wrote “Blue & Grey,” and the same soothing ambiance is immediately recognizable.) Then there’s Jimin’s plaintive, cheery tenor, which always turns him into the cuddliest, secret-keeping member of your slumber party. BTS are pros at creating this kind of intimacy between artist and listenerer — and here, applying that skill to the creation of what I hereby christen “comfort pop” feels like a public service.

That brings me to “Telepathy” and “Stay,” both tracks that deal with the band missing their fans by converting their loneliness into peppy optimism. The flamboyantly autotuned “Telepathy,” the only song that comes close to being a dud for me, still feels like a musical thumbs-up and a change of pace, reminiscent of a quirkier K-pop band like Block B rather than BTS. “Stay,” on the other hand, is exactly my jam: a multi-layered song that starts out channeling the retro ’90s vibe of BTS’s earlier 2020 song “Moon” — my favorite song of the year — before opening up into a breezy EDM beat.

In discussing the specific sound of “Moon” recently with Switched on Pop’s Charlie Harding, I realized that both it and “Stay” are channeling a specific flavor of early-90s pop that gives me an instant serotonin boost. You’re lucky I even stopped looping “Stay” to listen to the rest of this album.

In both “Telepathy” and “Stay,” BTS does that thing they frequently do where the band directly addresses its fandom as a specific “you.” Ordinarily, I find this trait to be off-putting rather than sweet, even though it’s just the kind of personalization Army adores. And even though I love “Stay,” I’m definitely not sure if we needed two different songs about this theme in an album that’s already shorter than usual.

But it’s also undeniable that in this period of quarantine, social distancing, and separation, you can never have too many sonic hugs. Be’s songs are all explicit distractions, meant to acknowledge our collective humanitarian angst and then redirect it toward something happier. Even the title of the most explicitly grim song, “Dis-Ease,” ostensibly about Covid-19 itself, is a pun on the idea of unease rather than a direct confrontation of illness. Its anxiety gets channeled through a fabulous spin cycle of musical motifs, a hip-hop beat set to funk horn and guitars with an old-school boy band chorus. It’s all backing snarky raps full of humor and wordplay, and it becomes about facing — and overcoming — a more generalized internal doubt.

It’s as if the pandemic has scaled back the emotional bandwidth of this album. Bitterness, frustration, and despair may be present, but they have no place in the hallowed space of contemplation that BTS has carved out for themselves.

In this context, “Dynamite,” which I had my reservations about, feels like the perfect exclamation point when it closes out Be — a fun, vibrant future fantasy whose lyrical nonsense becomes part of the album’s determinedly escapist milieu.

Be doesn’t feel like a permanent shift away from the band’s varied framework so much as, perhaps, a timely thesis statement. Be tells us, clearly and delightfully, what BTS is and what it wants to be. And what the band wants to be is a source of positivity, hope, and gladness.

In this, BTS has clearly succeeded. Sparkle on, you funky diamonds, and please keep doing what you’re doing — it may not be considered essential work, but it’s definitely essential art.

When will we shine through the city again with a little funk and soul? Soon, BTS promises, and who are we to argue?

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