PENTAGON's tenth EP, WE:TH, charts their brave journey through youth
There are a number of hallmarks, I’ve found, that people tend to look for when assessing the success of a K-pop group. Topping Korean music charts. Ranking internationally on Spotify viral lists or the Billboard Hot 100. Being recognized at the end of the year for having the best album or owning the best choreography. Western validation that often comes in the form of guesting invitations on morning talk shows or red carpet events—a perplexing concept that is by no means a must, but lauded nonetheless.
But if there is a single feat that every artist dreams of as they take their first steps into the cut-throat world of K-pop, it’s winning first place on music broadcasts.
“It’s like what ASAP is to the Philippines,” is my default explanation when people ask me about Korean music shows, “only it’s competitive and way more prestigious.” Winning first place on these shows entails way more than just confetti explosions and a fancy trophy. A weekly tally of physical album sales, digital streams, YouTube views and audience votes, it’s a seal of approval swathed in ambition. It’s a notch on the dreamer’s belt. An anchored first step. It’s a promise of “we’ll be here,” because we have a fighting chance to be.
Which begs the question of why PENTAGON hadn’t won first place up until last week. Composed of members Hui, Hongseok, Shinwon, Yeo One, Yuto, Kino, Wooseok, Yanan and Jinho (who is currently performing his mandatory military service), the nine-piece group had gone four strong years without a single music show win. And when I say strong, I mean it. They’ve been recognized at Korean awards shows. They somehow pulled off a world tour and a Japan tour last year. They placed second in a competition program against their male idol contemporaries. Their track, Shine, is a timeless gem still loved by the public. And yet, no music show win—up until that fateful day last week.
Cue a collective exhale (and happy tears) from UNIVERSE.
It’s been a long time coming, but perhaps this victory was all a matter of timing. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s got something to do with PENTAGON's comeback EP WE:TH being one of their strongest releases thus far.
There’s something awfully bittersweet about WE:TH.
The first song and title track of the EP, Daisy, encapsulates the feeling in three short minutes. The track starts off on a somber note but picks up at the 15-second mark with a buzzing energy that commands attention. Raw emotions unfold throughout each new stretch of the song. With uncertain if not contradictory lyrics like ‘I hope you’ll go far far away (don’t go)' and ‘I just want you to be unhappy (I hope)' transforming into a more hopeful ‘My dear, please be happy' towards the end of the song, it's a bruising tale of a lover going through the motions of nursing a broken heart. Beautiful Goodbye, which zeroes in on longing for the best despite seeing a relationship’s inevitable end, carries this same hopeful anguish.
WE:TH soaks up a different flavor in the third track, Nostalgia. Composed by Wooseok, the song is a breeze to listen to—light and easy. “There was a moment I had too many thoughts on my mind, so I started writing some lyrics to clear my mind. It got me thinking that it would be great to have people relate to my struggles,” he shares.
It seems that these feelings we all experience throughout our youth—whether they show through on the surface or remain unspoken—is where WE:TH takes root. This shows through in the two versions of the album: Seen and Unseen. When asked about why the group decided to name the album versions in this way, Hongseok explains, “We wanted people to interpret the message we want to convey in two versions, since music sounds different depending on the listeners’ different interpretations.”
Banking on the different emotions that could arise from the music they produce, the group pinpoints empathy as the overarching theme of the EP.
When asked about which song he’s most excited to perform for fans during their virtual concert next month, Shinwon singles out You Like. The track starts off with a mellow piano riff and Hui’s tender vocals—unexpectedly building up to a powerful, almost chaotic climax before backtracking right to the dulcet tones in the opening of the song. Or perhaps this duality isn’t all that unexpected; in hindsight, the experimental sound and reckless playfulness is right up PENTAGON’s alley. True to Shinwon’s judgment, this is exactly the kind of song UNIVERSE would love to hear live. I imagine WE:TH’s high-octane track, Paradise, would also make a wonderful encore performance.
The world has seen its fair share of change since PENTAGON’s last South Korean release, UNIVERSE: THE BLACK HALL. The group has evolved in its own ways, too—and now boasts of a new member lineup with Yanan’s return and Jinho’s absence. Hui, the group’s leader, admits that releasing new music didn’t come without its own struggles. “This album marks our fourth anniversary and we felt burdened about having to fill the vacancy of our member [Jinho], but we all worked hard together to make a great album.” As he inches towards his own military enlistment, the group is set to see another lineup change—but his faith is unflinching. “I am at the point where I may have to follow the footsteps of Jinho shortly. I haven’t really thought about our future plans yet, because regardless of whether I am with my teammates or not, they are so talented that they will certainly be able to make up for my absence.”
Perhaps there isn’t any reason to fret about the future after all. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the group’s trajectory, it's that good things come eventually. It’s a redemption arc we’ve seen in PENTAGON’s first show win, a reassurance Jinho sings in his solo track. You don't have to rush / the day you’re dreaming of will surely come. In the meantime, PENTAGON lives in the here and now.
Special thanks to Cube Entertainment
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver