“Shinee’s back,” the band sang in their 2012 single Sherlock and 2013’s Dream Girl and in 2021, they are indeed back – from a break after members served in the military service in South Korea, an obligation that has often proved career-ending for K-pop boy bands.
As if fulfilling their own prophecy, Shinee, who stylise their name as “SHINee”, ended a nearly three-year hiatus from releasing new music on Monday with the launch of a new album, Don’t Call Me.
As they spoke to the Post ahead of the release, the tight, endearing bond Shinee are known for as a group was palpable as they whispered into each other’s ears and played around when they were not responding to questions.
It’s obvious that their dedication to the group and their fans, collectively known as Shawol – or Shinee World – keeps them coming back for more, well over a decade since their musical journey began in 2008.
“When we came together to work on the album, I don’t think the years that have passed [since we last were together as Shinee] was an issue since we’re all so close as friends,” said Tae-min. He added: “But once we started recording and practising, that’s when issues arose and the older members had a hard time with that and figuring out more recent technology.”
Everyone else protests the teasing by the youngest member. “What are you even saying?” exclaimed Key.
Shinee’s latest album, their seventh and their first since The Story of Light series in 2018, is a bridge connecting their past and present. Many songs recall earlier releases, and some are direct sequels to older tunes, while other tracks show the group trying something new.
According to Min-ho, no overall theme connects the music of Don’t Call Me as an album; they just were including the music that felt right to them. “Some songs are quintessential Shinee songs, but there are also other songs that are things we’ve never tried before. They fit today’s genres and musical mood.”
Added Key: “I think our approach to this album was putting as many good songs on it and presenting it as this overall gift package to our fans that have been waiting for us for a long time.
“Obviously the situation with the world is out of our hands, but we know that music and video content from your favourite artists can make our fans feel better, so we were thinking about that while we were preparing the album.”
As a group known for exploring new musical styles and leading genre trends in the world of K-pop, it’s very typical of Shinee to mix something old with something new.
The first single, title track Don’t Call Me, is one such attempt at something new, and the most blatantly hip hop-oriented track ever released by the group. It brings Shinee back to their roots in many ways, as Taemin, Minho and Key were originally training as rappers under the band’s company, SM Entertainment.
“Once we were talking about the album’s concept, we agreed on coming back together and making a huge impact by showing a strong performance to our fans and making a big impression,” said Tae-min. Don’t Call Me is a good song for that. Also, the bass line is hip-hop, which is something Shinee’s never done before for a title track, and so it was something new and cool for us to try out.”
“I know that Shinee are known for being experimental and trying new things for every release, but we tried to take out the emphasis on that for this album,” revealed Key. “We wanted to pick a single that was best for this particular comeback, a song that we all felt comfortable with and a concept that would show that we’ve put a lot of thought into it.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we were doing it to try something new, but something specifically for this comeback as it’s the first time we’ve come together as a group in several years.”
Some songs on Don’t Call Me, such as Marry You, which the group performed earlier this year in the lead-up to announcing the album, tie directly into the sonic legacies of earlier releases. Tae-min confirms that it’s the last of a trilogy along with their debut single Replay and Love Sick off their 2015 album Odd.
Unintentional connections also appear on the album. The sweet pop ballad Kind is a song that, according to promotional materials, is meant to “describe the person who was by your side during hard times by comparing them to correct answers, filling in the blanks on a page”.
If that sounds familiar, it may be because in 2018 the group released the song Our Page, a lyrical dedication to Kim Jong-hyun, Shinee’s fifth member, who died the previous year. The members say they don’t necessarily see Kind as a sequel to Our Page, but in general they’ve been writing the book of Shinee since day one and will keep writing it as long as possible.
“The song is very open, and can be interpreted in many different ways,” said Key. “It could be about our relationship with our fans, for loved ones, for anyone. But I think the most important thing about this track is that we wanted to express our thankfulness for those we care about.”
Tae-min adds: “Because our career has been so long and we have so many albums under our belt, rather than things being one-dimensional, I think you can see all of it being connected.
“On this album there are a lot of different colours, which is what you expect from Shinee, but it’s also a connected stream of content, with each member and style coming together at the end. You can see the connection between previous releases and now. And it will continue as our career does.”
In a way, by attempting to move away from their past and trying out newer, trendier genres than earlier releases and putting those tracks alongside songs that recall earlier Shinee tunes, Shinee have become the best version of themselves.
And what does the future hold for Shinee? Their plan is to keep doing what they’re doing at the present, and to stay active by promoting and releasing music.
“I think there will be another turning point for us in the future, where we kind of get rid of our image of youthfulness and freshness, and gravitate towards a more masculine concept and experiment with something new,” said Taemin. “We’ll definitely be trying new things.”
Tae-min admits that he wants to hold more concerts, both as Shinee and as a soloist. Key adds wryly that “SM doesn’t know his plan”, so it’s unclear whether plans are in the works or Tae-min’s excitement about performing is getting the better of him.
Even so, Key wants people to know that the group are having a good time doing what they’re doing. “We’re having fun. We’re enjoying right now.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.