Halfway through Super One, the first full-length studio album from the South Korean band SuperM, something unexpected happens. After the breakout single “Tiger Inside,” a fearsome composition of guttural growls and clapping beats, cools off, its fiery sound gives way to the twinkling piano keys of the group’s first ballad, “Better Days.” It’s a hopeful song about overcoming hard times collectively, and with its slow-burning, ‘90s-tinged nostalgia, it seems at once outside the group’s typically boisterous sound and perfectly placed. The dichotomous arrangement of the two tracks resonates as the sonic equivalent of reaching the peak of a mountain, then looking out over a cloudy expanse, off to “better days, better days, better days” — and toward forever. You realize the world is so small.
“The lyrics are, kind of, very healing,” the 24-year-old Thai singer Ten says of the track during a Zoom press conference. After he speaks, his six collaborators — Taemin, Baekhyun, Kai, Taeyong, Mark, and Lucas — clap and cheer wildly in response. “I think people, when you listen to ‘Better Days,’ you can get that energy that we, us together, can make a better day.”
The “Avengers of K-pop” have been making history since they arrived on the circuit less than a year ago. The first K-pop supergroup, comprised of seven key members from acts under the parent company SM Entertainment (SHINee, EXO, NCT 127, WayV), their eponymous EP debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first Korean artists to do so with a first release. Their sound became synonymous with the electricity of their earliest, instantly iconic single, “Jopping,” a formula followed by “2 Fast” and “Super Car.” That inherent energy is perhaps what made their work immediately appropriate for big-stadium tours: They embarked on their first world tour, We Are the Future Live, months after their debut, concluding at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. It’s also what makes their first ballad such an outlier within their catalog, albeit perfectly at home on Super One.
“We all need to come together and unite,” 27-year-old Taemin declares of the LP’s core message with the help of a translator. “We all need to come together to overcome rather than just the individuals.” That notion resonates immediately and poignantly while the group speaks to a group of journalists separated by continents and a global pandemic; at the end of the chat, they pose for selfies with smiles and peace signs for the digital grid of writers. This experience, a yearning to be together while being forced apart, is framed on the bumping, radio-ready English closing track “With You,” which was previously performed during Global Citizen’s Lady Gaga-curated One World: Together At Home benefit livestream. But the notion appears throughout, as on “Tiger Inside,” about unleashing one’s inner strength.
Though collective healing might be the driving theme of Super One, it’s equally defined by its eclecticism. It grooves into R&B on “Step Up” and “So Long,” while the album’s titular opus, “One (Monster & Infinity),” a hybrid remix, is an all-out banger with a gooey techno beat. The track might give SHINee fans flashbacks: It’s the first medley of its kind from an SM group since “Sherlock (Clue + Note).” “When I recorded ‘Sherlock’ with SHINee back in the day, at that time, it was like one of the first times we were doing this, so it felt very experimental,” Taemin adds. “At that time, I was a little worried but not worried about how this would end up sounding at the end of the recording process… A lot of people might think that mixing two songs together is, kind of, quite tall of a task, but we were able to do it, and I’m really happy with the results.”
A debut album is a symbolic, defining moment for an artist’s career; on Super One, SuperM are both the sum of their parts while also transcending that, a unique symbiosis among larger-than-life singular talents. And yet, there’s still more for the boys to learn along the way: “I’m sure everyone feels the same way but, as artists, when we start out our careers, I can’t help but to feel that a lot of the moments that we go through feel like we’re still trying to get there, like we’re not fully there yet,” 25-year-old Taeyong says. “There are a lot of moments where it might’ve felt like a failure but actually, everything was like a step to build up what they have now.”