Queen of K-pop IU (Lee Ji-eun) is a master of navigating genres and novel themes with the ease of an industry veteran. Never one to shy away from thorny topics, IU infuses her songs with delicacy, bequeathing her listeners comfort through her lyrics and musical accessibility.
Her fifth album Lilac, released March 25, is quintessential IU. In her first studio album since Palette in 2017, IU traverses diverse genres ranging from R&B to hip-hop and experiments with original, often tricky themes.
While many lament turning 30 years old, IU wholeheartedly embraces it, and she says as much, opening the album with dreamy dance-pop title track “Lilac” in her signature reedy and breathy voice. She memorializes her past as she sings her twenties goodbye, saying, “Take a good care of our last moment in the page / Could this last goodbye be any more perfect?” — a refreshing celebration of aging in a world that dreads it.
With clever wordplay, such as using the Korean word “annyeong” that denotes opposite meanings “hello” and “goodbye,” IU keeps her lyricism fresh and enhances the underlying meaning despite employing the cliched spring motif prevalent in many Korean pop ballads. And as with all goodbyes, a bittersweetness underlies the musical buoyancy of IU’s title track.
Although IU’s rise to fame was paved by wistful songs about love, including her early 2010s hits “YOU&I” and “Good day,” her artistry shines the brightest in her personal, introspective songs with capacity for nuance. In Lilac’s “My sea,” IU contemplates whether her younger self would be satisfied by her present self, ending the song with a hopeful yet realistic, “There will be days in which I’ll lose against life / Even if (I) get lost again, I know my way back.”
“Empty Cup” is a rude awakening from the wide-eyed simplicity of her earlier works, as it explores a relationship that has stagnated into boredom. She repeats in the chorus, “I’m sick of your love / Sick of your love,” as if to mirror the repetitive, routine and monotonous state of her relationship in a dishearteningly realistic take on the fickleness of love.
IU showcases her musical breadth by deviating from contemplative themes in songs like “Ah puh,” “Coin” and “Troll,” which playfully echo elements of juvenile 80s and 90s video game music. Here, IU oozes confidence and is excited to triumph in the face of hurdles. In “Coin,” she stuns as she sings nonchalantly in a lower register that is unusual for the soprano-ranged singer and even raps later — a testament to both her range as a musician and her willingness to experiment.
As befitting an artist with an unusual talent for building rapport with her listeners, IU’s electropop track “Celebrity” is an ode to her fans. She delves into and subverts the roles delineated by the strange world of parasocial interactions in a way that’s almost meta by declaring her fans her own celebrity. She sings to her fans, “The one and only / you are my celebrity,” and concludes the song on an optimistic note encouraging them to persevere: “Can’t you see how beautiful / Tomorrow’s spring is to be.”
While Lilac is generally a triumph in both its lyricism and musicality, a few tracks fall flat. “Hi spring Bye,” a ballad in which she comes to terms with a breakup, is by far the album’s weakest link: Generic in its instrumentation while offering no original lyricism, the track stays afloat solely owing to IU’s vocals. “Flu,” while initially promising with its warbling chorus of harmonies, soon fades into oblivion, eclipsed by the rest of her album. Her underlying comparison of love to a flu is banal and unoriginal — love as a sickness is by no means a new analogy.
She concludes Lilac with the album’s most mellow track, “Epilogue,” in an intentionally ambiguous, quiet ode to the future.
IU entered her twenties with Last Fantasy, an album brimming with bright naivete. Now, she enters her thirties with Lilac as a mature musician with mastery of diversified genres and themes. IU acknowledges that for her, aging is a privilege. And for many of her listeners, it’s a privilege to be along for the ride.
Contact Gracie Chung at [email protected].