The K-pop superstars’ second album of new material in 2020 fixates on the frustration and grief of life in quarantine, sifting through the blurry days to construct a new form of intimacy.
You have to at least want to root for BTS. The supergroup’s global dominance has been a rare constant in a year of upheaval, a pulse of pure joy through all this muck. There they are on The Late Late Show With James Corden, handing each other presents while crooning into their hand mics. There they are on TikTok, plopping a bouquet in a hand-lettered vase and offering it to their fans. BTS has broken so many records, at such a frantic pace, that any effort to tally them becomes almost instantly obsolete. Their new album, Be, devotes a full three-minute skit to celebrating the rise of “Dynamite,” their first all-English single, to the top of the Billboard charts. (“Don’t you think this is what happiness is like?” RM asks.) By the time the album itself was released, its first track had also reached the top of the U.S. charts, the first song sung predominantly in Korean to ever do so.
That level of fame has not come without its costs. As a band—and a brand—that prizes authenticity, BTS haven’t shied away from addressing the tolls of megastardom and growing up in general. They’ve trained their pristine pop machine on sweeping philosophical ideas—the Jungian concept of the soul, a Herman Hesse bildungsroman—with varying degrees of success. On Be, the Bangtan Boys fixate instead on life in quarantine. In a year when profundity is woven into the mundane, when the rote tasks of getting through the day have taken on new intensity, BTS soften and shine.
“The entire year got stolen,” Jimin croons in Korean on the shimmering “Fly to My Room,” before the group lilts about lying in bed with a bloated stomach, a pile of takeout containers, and the constant blare of a TV. Frustration and grief animate these songs, but it’s their simplicity and specificity that make them compelling. On “Blue & Grey,” Suga wonders if “that hazy shadow that swallows me up” classifies as anxiety or as depression. “I just want to be happier,” the group cries over delicate, bleeding strings, their voices whittled down to pleading rasps.
The record’s thematic center is “Life Goes On,” a flickering prayer for pushing past 2020. Artists have struggled with how to construct a record about self-isolation—Charli XCX opted for the glitch and quiver of How I’m Feeling Now, while Drake danced alone through his massive, frigid house. BTS pluck minutiae from the blur of days trapped inside: “On my pillow, on my table,” they sing, “life goes on.” In the past, BTS have used their songs as vehicles for feel-good messages (“I love, I love, I love myself! I know, I know, I know myself!” they shouted on Wings’ “Cypher 4”); here, they build hope in real time. Each gradual glimmer of layered vocals, every lush harmony that streams over the delicate backbeat, stitches together an intimacy. I kept the song on repeat while I churned through my daily tasks—I pruned my inbox, pushed a Swiffer across my floor. By the seventh or eighth play, I realized I’d been crying.
That intricate balance of confession and consolation dissipates later in the album. RM, the group’s unofficial leader, worried that “Life Goes On” would sound “bland,” and other parts of the record try to compensate with aggressive sheen. The raps on “Dis-ease” shuffle over a mellow hip-hop beat, breezy and infectious but flimsy compared to the harder-edged juggernauts of past songs like “UGH!” The neon-drenched “Stay” meanders into middling EDM, with twitchy drum kicks and a siren-like blare; the beats sound like they were ripped from Steve Aoki’s hard drive in 2010.
“Stay” ends with a flourish of reverb that glides into the gloss and throb of “Dynamite,” a song that, on its own, achieves slick competency: a jumble of funk and handclaps and eminently palatable one-liners. (“Cup of milk, let’s rock and roll!”) Of course, “Dynamite” also functions as a monument to BTS’ global reach, but to the group, it’s more of a gift to fans. “We call this our own recharge project,” RM told NME about the single, “and we hope that it will be able to recharge your own batteries, even if it’s only for a moment.” That’s part of the fun of BTS—you get the sense that they earnestly want to root for you, too.
Buy: Rough Trade