After so many amuse bouche posts about k-pop teasers and comebacks, I’m finally going to serve up a main course by telling you my thoughts on an entire album.
This is largely because EXO’s latest winter album, Universe, actually sounds like an album.
One of my biggest problems with k-pop is that it the industry focuses almost exclusively on singles. (American pop does this too, so I shouldn’t complain too much.) But as someone who appreciates the musical journey that a well-crafted album can provide, I miss that in k-pop. At its best, you get a 4-minute chunk of a pure emotion-bubble. No story, no journey, no connection.
So when the songs on this summer’s The War feel like they belong together, like they could all be found on the same menu in the same restaurant, I was ecstatic. Some of the songs are quite good, too.
I’m pleased to say that the musical cohesiveness has continued into the winter album. All the songs sound related, in roughly the same color palette–even though they have different emotional hooks.
Universe is just beautiful. A sweeping rock ballad with a generous dash of “longing” and and an English hook of “I’ll search the universe” with the unspoken FOR YOU that hooks all of us womenfolk.
The b-side that I’ve heard the most chatter about is Been Through. This might be because the songwriters are good at promoting themselves on Twitter. Part of me wants to love it; it’s a beautifully-orchestrated, sparse pop song. It’s not often that you hear pizzicato in pop strings, and the effect contrasts well with EXO’s lush vocals. What I don’t love is how the chorus sounds like American pop music. The rhyming “You shine like the stars / you light up my heart” takes me immediately to the arena of overly saccharine indie pop which spoils the mood somewhat.
A contender for my favorite is Stay. The piano and the semi-flat analog sound of the recording are a refreshing change of pace from the normal bright and clean acoustics. This song showcase’s EXO’s vocal ability well, with a repeating motif of thirds (I think–my music theory is a bit rusty) that weaves subtly through the different verses. Honestly I’ve never been much of a fan of Suho’s vocals but he’s winning me over in this song. His verse with Kai–who tries so hard–is charming.
My nominees for “most forgettable” on this album are Fall and Good Night. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they’re not as good as they other songs. Fall is a pretty standard R&B ballad, nothing too special. The guitar line is nice. As far as Good Night, I want to hate the synth sound for being so jarring with the acoustic (or fake acoustic) sounds of the other songs, but if I take a step back it’s a nice palate cleanser.
Finally, we have Lights Out, which has a beautiful moving bass line under the piano line and melody. The use of voice-as-instrument reminds me of Enya’s Shepherd Moons album–absolutely stunning. Sung by our vocal line (Chen, Baekhyun, DO, Suho), this is the song I would most love to see performed live with a piano and an upright bass.
SERIOUSLY SM ENTERTAINMENT, LET EXO SING WITH LIVE INSTRUMENTS FOR ONCE. SERIOUSLY.
Anyway, if the vocals on Universe have not already inspired you to wish for a Chen solo album, Lights Out will. [Edit: it appears that Chen wrote this song as well, so I will upgrade this wish to a Chen singer/songwriter solo album.]
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album. I have two overall criticisms. Though I’ve praised this album for sounding cohesive, sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t sound too much of the same. The fact that I can skip 2 songs out of 6 without changing the “feeling” of the album says a lot for the repetition in tone and in instrumentation.
Universe delves into melancholy territory that EXO has never tackled. It’s nice to hear some songs predominantly in minor key (not just for effect or contrast), but the overall effect is downer rather than upper. One of the things that I like the most about K-pop in general is that it’s optimistic and happy without being overbearing about it. Even when EXO’s previous winter title tracks have been sad, they never dwelt on it (musically at least–I can’t speak to the lyrics). This album leaves me feeling hollow in a way that K-pop never has. I appreciate that, but I’m not sure I like it.
Moving forward, I hope that the members and SM’s music team can capitalize on this year of excellent music and keep up this level of quality. The Japan album looks to be great. I’m hoping for another “Forever” in our future.
“A Very Personal Review” means that I’m no expert, this is merely my subjective opinion that I’m writing because I like this album and want to share it with the world. I don’t listen widely to (Western) pop or to K-pop, so I can’t situate this group or this album in a wider context, nor can I give a good music theory perspective on it.