PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
APPLY HERE APPLY HERE
APPLY HERE APPLY HERE
TXT
Photo: Courtesy of Big Hit Music

TXT Show Impressive Range on ‘The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE’

TXT’s The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE makes bold statements about the Korean band’s expansive music.

The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE
TXT
Big Hit / Republic
31 May 2021

To earn a place among the most relevant artists of your time, you don’t always have to be the first, nor among the firsts, to do something. Sometimes it’s about doing what’s already being done but doing it better than most. For example, in 2020, when the biggest acts in the world released disco music songs, Korean boy group TXT (Tomorrow X Together) followed with “Blue Hour” (2020). It was one of the catchiest renditions of the genre in that year. 

To be in a position of leadership, it takes the mindset and the guts to be ahead of others. In music, what this means is often being at the upfront or the pioneering line of sounds, genres, and trends — or at least taking the risk of trying to be.

TXT have been called “leaders of the fourth generation of K-pop”. The line dividing generations in K-pop can be as blurry as the lines separating Millennials from Gen Z. The purpose of these lines is merely didactic, especially since artists from different generations can be simultaneously active and successful. For example, BTS, which for many is considered from the “third generation of K-pop”, is still as active and interesting as ever, eight years after their debut, and their legacy is unmatchable.

Nevertheless, it didn’t stop fans and the press from assigning the fourth-generation leadership position to TXT. The group is humble about it: interviewed by Dazed Korea, the members say that it makes them proud, but it also makes them feel they have to work harder to keep the bar high.

To explore TXT’s music only in the context of K-pop has its pros and cons. For one side, their place as a part of what is now one of the biggest companies in the world (HYBE, home of BTS, and now Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, J Balvin too) can set the standards of what other K-pop artists can do. But it’s also true that TXT’s music is not only symptomatic of the new directions of the K-pop industry; it reflects a bigger picture, encompassing global changes rather than just local. While that, too, is a trace shared by many fourth-generation K-pop groups, it’s worth exploring what sets TXT apart from the rest. Their second studio album, The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE (2021), adds new elements to this conversation.

In the eight songs on The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE, in which all the members have songwriting credits (Huening Kai has a production credit too), TXT continues their signature style: a crossbreed of sounds and narratives of youth. But they are also up for some experimentation. This is heard in the album’s first lead single: “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)”, an emo rock song co-written by BTS’s RM, among other in-house names, like Slow Rabbit and CEO Bang Si Hyuk (two names that appear in many other tracks), and foreign songwriters with many hits on their card. The song features Korean singer Seori. That itself is a starting point for the album’s innovations. Not many lead singles in K-pop feature other artists, let alone artists from a different label. 

As for the genre, to be fair, rock has been done in K-pop before. There are many rock bands in Korea’s mainstream pop scene: DAY6, CNBLUE, N.Flying, the Rose, to name a few. Even in K-pop boy groups that don’t play instruments and don’t follow the configuration of rock bands, rock music has been explored before too, like in B.A.P.’s “Bang X2” (2014), PENTAGON’s “Daisy” (2020), and the entire discography of DREAMCATCHER.

Yet, TXT innovates in their approach to the genre, and their musical DNA shines across the familiar sounds. This is not just a repackaging of old rock variants. Nevertheless, it comes in perfect timing for TXT to position themselves at the frontline of the punk rock, alt-rock revival in 2021. The songs in The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE are stirred by the angst of the pandemic in 2020 and a yearning for the kind of energy and connection that a rock concert drives, which the pandemic made impossible.

The sound is welcomed by teenagers and young adults and incites Millennials through ”90s nostalgia. (Extra points for TXT if they can get listeners to dive deeper into Korean rock too.) But because “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)” dialogues with elements that are not new to TXT’s music, this new phase comes across as a natural extension of their journey, rather than just luck or a gimmick. It doesn’t look like a pirouette to catapult TXT to a place beside acts like Olivia Rodrigo; rather, it feels like TXT was meant to belong to the current landscape.

Rock has informed TXT’s music since the beginning. Their debut EP, The Dream Chapter: Star (2019), closes with the soft rock ballad “Nap of a Star”; and their 2020 single “9 and Three Quarters (Run Away)” has the structure of a pop-rock song too. The group’s most unequivocal attempt at making rock is heard in Minisode 1: Blue Hour (2020). If the previous albums were the seeds, then Minisode”s “Ghosting” and “Wishlist” were the water for TXT to bloom into “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)”.

“0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)” is a fresh take on U2’s type of arena-rock ambientation. Also, the “oh oh oh” background choirs recall the indie rock of acts and songs like Foster the People’s “Coming of Age“. These references don’t come easily to mind, though. At first listen, the song just provides an immersing experience through the voices of Yeonjun, Soobin, Beomgyu, Taehyun, Huening Kai, and Seori — they complement each other.

The low drive in Yeonjun’s voice makes him the right singer for the lyrics explaining “the mess” that precedes the infatuation that the song is about. Kai supports him charismatically in the verse and leads the chorus like a born star. Soobin’s voice adds tenderness to the song, and Taehyun’s is perfect for the emo verses “I know it’s real, I can feel it”. Beomgyu’s lower register is like a secret triumph: he is a good second lead to guest Seori (whose vocals make the song even more elegant) and enchants in the second verse too.

In further and more attentive listens, other elements of the song stand out as well, such as the sense of urgency in the unusual drums pattern. The touch of quirkiness in the melodies of “My life before you was trash” is on-brand for TXT. It feels like their entire career has prepared them for this moment.

The choice of “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)” as a lead track for a group known for their complex, synchronized choreographies is interesting. The production of the song is not exactly the most suitable for group dance moves. It favors band performance — which TXT has done, too, for the Korean TV show You Heeyeol’s Sketchbook. But sometimes, those odd creative choices lead to the most interesting outcomes. As the song’s music video shows, TXT can do both: they can be modern rock stars and still amaze with their dance moves, all at once.

Details like these make TXT an interesting act to keep up with. In barely two years, they have built one of the most solid discographies in K-pop, with their unique mixture of hyper pop, hip-hop, and rock (with occasional incursions in new jack swing, and more). The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE is no exception, and the connection with their previous work lies in more than just its quality level. Tracks like “Magic”, “Dear Sputnik”, and “Frost” link back to the sound of TXT’s “Blue Hour” (2020), “Wishlist” (2020), and “Eternally” (2020), respectively. As for lyrics and concept, tracks like “What If I Had Been That Puma” and “No Rules” create intertextuality with “PUMA” (2020) and “New Rules” (2019).

The album starts strong with the R&B/synthpop “Anti-Romantic”. If its lyrics seem tailor-made for social media quoting, then it’s no wonder the song is co-penned by Salem Ilese, who became famous for the TikTok viral hit “Mad at Disney” (2020). In theory, the contrast between the lyrics “Sorry, I’m an anti-romantic” with the following track’s “I know it’s real, I can feel it” might sound strange. But it all adds to the purposely chaotic nature of TXT’s music, just as a young adult’s life itself (or anyone’s life).

British singer and songwriter Olly Murs is in the writing credits for “Magic”. When you listen to it, you’ll recognize his funky swing from songs like “Troublemaker” (2012). However, TXT doesn’t sound like they’re channeling anyone: their dynamics and vocals are at home in this song. 

As for “Ice Cream” and “What If I Had Been That Puma”, it would have been good to appreciate TXT’s vocals in their cleanest state, but the Auto-Tune makes sense for the songs’ propositions. Together with the following “No Rules”, these songs are too fun to be called “fillers,” but there are better moments to come. If these three songs have provided a chance for Yeonjun, Soobin, Beomgyu, and Taehyun to write and compose, “Dear Sputnik” is where the group’s youngest member, Kai, ventures into production with producer El Capitxn (Taehyun is a co-writer too).

“Dear Sputnik” is opened in Kanye West’s “Power” (2010) style, and breaks into a pop-rock song in the style of adventure movies. The lyrics lean towards the ludic, dreamy language that TXT speaks so well: “Oh my Sputnik / I found my destiny (You’re another me)” (translation credits: TXT Translations)

Meanwhile, the last song, “Frost”, continues a vision of what the darker side of TXT’s music sounds like at its best (like in “Puma” and “Eternally”): quirky, cinematic hyper pop, that dazes just as much as it invites a dance and a laugh. It makes sense to see the name of Ashton Casey, better known as the alt-pop singer and rapper Ashnikko, in the credits of this song (in which TXT’s Yeonjun appears too). If TXT continues to have pre-choruses like “Blue Hour’s” and “Frost’s”, they have a shot at becoming to pre-choruses what Taylor Swift is to bridges

The Chaos Chapter: Freeze presents a wide range of styles, but there’s a streamline tying its songs together. It operates through a new concept of cohesivity, one that embodies variation to some extent. A closer look at TXT’s discography reveals that the building of their sonic identity is a story being written little by little. In a well-written novel, it’s difficult for the reader to identify all the elements, or moments, that are key to the story’s outcome. All that the reader knows, when the story peaks, is that everything is finally making sense; even the details that they won’t recall or haven’t paid attention to come together. The ability to guide a reader like this speaks in the favor of the novelist. That’s how TXT’s discography is. 

Listening to the three EPs and two albums TXT has put out so far, the listener might develop an instinctual feeling that there are two or maybe four templates for TXT’s songs, but it’s not easy to identify them. They’re different enough to have to be separated from each other, but connected enough to make it hard to explain why. This is a sign of the times: in an era of infinite possibilities, coherence and a strong personality no longer mean sticking to one thing. However, if the range is too wide, or if their essence is ignored just for the sake of expanding their range, the artist risks sounding like a mess or sounding lost. This is not TXT’s case.

The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE makes bold statements in unpretentious ways with its production and creative choices. It feels like a natural continuation of TXT’s path, while it also showcases new sides of the members’ potential as singers, songwriters, and producers. To be considered leaders of a new K-pop generation, or an act worthy of a spotlight at the worldwide level might be too much pressure on such young artists. But you can hardly blame someone for expecting big things from TXT once you hear what they can do in The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE.

RATING 8 / 10
RESOURCES AROUND THE WEB
PopMatters