Two and a half weeks of close listening should be enough to write this, right?! I feel like I spent these two weeks half listening out of enjoyment and half listening in a mode of study and it’s time to put this post to bed so I can stop listening to the album altogether.
(JK, this album is really great, and you should listen to it now if you haven’t already.)
BABY DON’T CRY
Sit down for a sec and LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT HOW FANTASTIC THIS SONG IS.
The structure of this song is fantastic. The flow of this song is fantastic. The lyrics are fantastic. The singing is fantastic. Everything is fantastic. Fantastic!
“Baby, Don’t Cry” is spectacularly like Adele’s “Someone Like You,” in the way it slowly builds up tension and then releases that tension in a (sad) satisfying way. Last year, the Wall Street Journal published an article about why “Someone Like You” makes listeners want to cry, and here are a couple of highlighted passages,
An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. “This generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good.”
Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.
In addition, during the chorus, Adele slightly modulates her pitch at the end of long notes right before the accompaniment goes to a new harmony, creating mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution…
Chill-provoking passages, they found, shared at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new “voice,” either a new instrument or harmony.
When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat. Depending on the context, we interpret this state of arousal as positive or negative, happy or sad.
The entirety of “Baby Don’t Cry” is a gliding between consonance and dissonance, which creates the tension in the song. The pitch change in the second verse (during Suho/Lay’s lines) pushes the tension higher, which gathers at full speed during the raps when Kyungsoo sings, “Say no more, no more.”
The tension starts to unravel at the bridge, after the conclusion of the rap, when Kyungsoo/Luhan starts their lines and then Baekhyun/Jongdae finishes. As this verse culminates into the song’s final repetition of the chorus, the listeners start to come down from the wave.
The final verse acts somewhat like a catharsis, and almost mirrored in the lyrics is the raining down of blinding light,
|The dawn’s light spills down|
Like you, it shines down brightly (falling down)
My eyes get lost in it
Now I cry, cry, cry
|The early sunlight comes down
A blinding force that reminds me of you comes down (falling down)
My eyes that lost their way
Now I cry, cry, cry
We know the conflict within the lyrics isn’t resolved, which is why after the final verse, we go back to the piano solo, stark and lonely as ever.
If this song isn’t an epic fucking hurt, I don’t know what is. Every aspect of this song is ridiculously perfect. I feel so strongly about “Baby, Don’t Cry” that I can vouch for this group on the strength of this song alone. They’ve only performed this song live once and it left a lot to be desired, but I know they have the potential to own and absorb this song and when that day comes, it will be glorious.
I took one for the team. I pounded back a couple of shots1 and listened to all 4 “Wolf” tracks consecutively2 to write this.
The premise of this song is not bad, but the execution is all wrong, as with most high-impact SM songs as of late. This song is what I like to categorize as the Lazy-Rap-Lazy-Beat track, which is a style YG does a lot with GD and co., where there’s a low, lazy beat in the background, layered with a few very thin melodies (if any at all), and then a rapping track on top.
Well, the demo version was like going for that effect, at least. The most hip hop SM has ever gone was with “Two Moons,” and when the “Wolf” demo leaked three months ago, you could tell that SM was going for a continuation of “Two Moons” with a song that relied heavily on a combination of rapping, rhythmic talking, this time sprinkled also with a melodic chorus and extravagant bridge.
And then three months later, we got the monstrosity that is the final cut of the song. “Wolf” attempts too many things that nobody in the group could deliver, further compounding people’s problems with this group and SM. The final cut of this song is so busy for no good reason: there are so many layers of dubstep, wolf cries, shouts, raps. The build-up of this song is unpleasant and chaotic: the entire last quarter of the song consists of adding layer after layer of new sounds without removing some of the preexisting ones.
But! Everybody was distracted by how nobody could reach any of their notes in the demo that the song’s more interesting aspects were neglected. The tone of “Wolf” is not earnest enough, which people really had a problem with because they needed a rookie group like Exo to be way more earnest than they are. But arrogant in pop is good. Arrogant pop is seriously lacking in the K-pop sea of earnestness and saccharine and YG can’t be the only company propping up the arrogance totem pole, I’m sure it gets heavy.
Regardless of any merits, however, the song should only have been attempted by pros and Exo could not touch this type of song even with a ten-foot pole. Chanyeol is a good rapper, but not for a song like this that flits between personalities so frantically. Baekhyun, Kyungsoo, Jongdae can all sing, but Jongdae is the only one whose range fits this song, once again rendering Baekhyun and Kyungsoo so outside of their comfort zones that it’s painful to listen to them. Suho, Luhan, and Yixing are also competent and dependable singers, but are rendered into non-entities in a song that basically only requires you either “rap” things, shout things, grunt things, or scream things.
The performance of this song also cannot be saved, beyond the tree at the beginning. Tony Testa needs to be exiled forever from the land of SM, never permitted to reenter. SM’s idols have always been better with legwork than arm work and Tony Testa seems to think that dancing is a circus act aided by literal interpretation (at one point they’re SCRATCHING THEMSELVES like wolves). The dancing for this song could have been so much more interesting than it was. A plague on both your houses, SM and Testa.
1 Just kidding.
2 Not kidding. :(
This is such a suspenseful love song; it’s a really nice change of pace from the rest of the album despite continuing on a similar theme. I love the tone of “Black Pearl”: it’s ambitious and adventurous, but also ruminative and longing.
The song is eery and all the layers of the song work beautifully with each other to enhance that mood. There’s a lot going on in the music, which is why there needs to be a tight reign on all the sounds, and the sound mixing is excellent. I love the pulsating drum beats lying low beneath the violins, dubstep, synth piano, and how that meshes with the echoing vocals.
I want to give props to Lay, Tao, and Chanyeol for doing a bang-up job with their parts. Lay’s singing is freaking beautiful and emotive (“我的心 没有一刻与你分离 将你忘记” [0:29]). Tao and Chanyeol did a really good job with their raps, though for this I do have to give more credit to the song: the rap break is a great use of dubstep and the tightly-timed beat forces Tao and Chanyeol’s rapping to be rhythmic and commanding.
This is my third favorite song after “Baby, Don’t Cry” and “Black Pearl.” I really like songs with quick, snappy beats, and there’s a great bounce all throughout “Heart Attack.” I’m sure it was what they were going for, but I like that quickness of the beat mimics a heart beating under stress.
I like that the song isn’t heavy, despite the very serious health issues Exo is accusing their lovers of causing in their bodies, lol. It’s kind of low-simmering and urgent, but never over-dramatic.
I do have one gripe with “Heart Attack,” and it’s that the lack of a rap break is completely mind-boggling. SM inserts unnecessary raps in 98.5% of their songs, but the one song that could have really used it right after the bridge, they just make Kris/Chanyeol grunt “Give me heart attack, ‘ey, ayo”?! A rap break could have acted as a nice kicker to end the song, but the producers completely missed the boat on this one.
LET OUT THE BEAST
I like that “Let Out the Beast” completely ditches the theme of love that all the other songs on this album touch on. This song isn’t a super sophisticated dance track, but has a good “get that dirt off your shoulders” feel to it. As far as message goes, this one is pretty tame. “Let Out the Beast” is like contained self-congratulation, if you will.
Both “Let Out the Beast” and “Heart Attack” run on very quick, steady beats, and the singing is almost like melodic chanting, so it’s very pleasant to listen to. Unlike in “Heart Attack” though, I’m not crazy about rap break in “Let Out the Beast,” and I think the song flows nicely without the “Right! Left!” line. It’s a bit jarring and I don’t feel Chanyeol or Kris own that line, so it comes out awkwardly.
DON’T GO, PETER PAN, BABY, 3.6.5.
I’m not going to lie, I think most of the second half of the album is substantially weaker than the first half. All the songs are very listenable to and easy-to-digest, but I do feel that any other SM group could have sang these songs and there would have been no difference.
That’s not to say that these songs are bad, and I think the distinction should be made here, but they are very easy, very safe, and very filler. To be as fair as I could towards this album, I made myself listen to this album endlessly, on loop (don’t cry for me, there are worse things that could happen to a person), and I was fine with listening to all of them, though they were all tonally the same: young, sweet love and longing. They’re sunny day songs, which is fine, but not musically as rich or gripping as the other tracks.
“My Lady” is the musical equivalent of watered down beer. “My Lady” is the musical equivalent of a character “committing suicide” in the last five minutes of the 15th episode of a K-drama, and then you find out it’s a dream in the first five minutes of the final episode. “My Lady,” frankly speaking, is a cop-out, and it’s a damned shame.
The teaser version was one of the first Exo sounds we ever heard, and that teaser alone made the prospect of Exo’s debut thrilling. The teaser cut was taut, suspenseful, and sexy. The final version runs in circles and is what the inability to sneeze must feel like, in song-format.
The first 30 seconds of the song is still perfect, but how are you going to have the music fade out, stop, and then just reloop the verse we just listened to? It completely shatters all anticipation, and that ramp-up (1:02) that the first verse leading up to after the stop — that ramp-up the first verse was training the ear to wait for — never happens, and instead we get a reloop of the verse.
This is not a song that can follow the conventional song structure — verse A, pre-chorus, chorus, verse B, pre-chorus, chorus, etc. By the time that ramp-up does come, we’ve waited too long for it and the momentum has worn off. The rest of the song is thin, aimless, and unappealing, and my disappointment has melted into a puddle.
– – – – –
“XOXO” — barring “Wolf” — is ultra radio-friendly and just a blast to listen to, which honestly, it didn’t need to be. It’s actually a shame and a waste that the album is this good. When you have a title track this polarizing, what you aim to achieve is moot, because anyone who isn’t already even a little bit interested in this group has no reason to give “XOXO” a try. Exo-K shot Exo in the foot when they debuted so poorly with their craptastic first live performance last April, but this go around, SM is shooting Exo so many times they don’t even have bullets left in their gun anymore. This is why Exo’s popularity will not be going beyond the hardcore SM fandom for at least the next couple of years.
This album is also amazingly — amazingly! — C-pop friendly and actually sounds like C-pop. I doubt this was SM’s intention (market research? what the fuck is that??), but if it weren’t for “Wolf” — which will NEVER be accepted as good, mainstream radio music in China, and I don’t care what any fan living-in-China-has-a-penpal-in-China-has-a-third-cousin-in-China tells you — this album could actually make this band known for catchy pop and great performances, without having to rely on Hallyu clout. The rest of the tracks — particularly the sweeter, lower-key ones like “Baby,” “Don’t Go,” “Peter Pan” — will fit right in with the general C-pop landscape, and I do not even have enough arms to throw up in the air to express my exasperation with SM’s “Wolf” selection tactic.
As for the actual groups: this album confirms to me SM’s upper management who split 12 boys into two groups of six has poor music management skills. Or, at the very least, their priority wasn’t to make their music as good a fit for the boys as possible.
After listening to them harmonize within each of their respective groups, it’s pretty clear that M could do with some padding that heavier baritone and bass voices could provide, and K could sound more colorful if they had lighter, sharper voices. Overall, though, the songs are a better fit for K’s vocals than they are M’s, and poor arrangement of great voices is a grievance I didn’t know could wound me so much until I got into K-pop.
Chanyeol, Kyungsoo, and Baekhyun all have similar timbres and basically melt into each other when they sing together. Suho has the highest voice in the group but that’s not even saying much because it’s just a smidgen higher than SeKai’s.
Then you have M. Kris is by far the bass, but doesn’t do much as a bass because, hi, rapper. Minseok has the next deepest voice but he isn’t used much as a vocalist. Within the active vocal line you have Yixing, Luhan, Jongdae, three parts of a tenor/countenor sandwich. It’s like listening to one Intense Changmin and two relaxed Changmins singing together. For everything. For ever.
Jongdae very much should have been swapped to K, with either Baekhyun or Kyungsoo put into M, so that both groups can be more balanced. Yixing could’ve even been put into K, with Suho put into M. It’s also apparent that even SM feels like they have to compensate for M’s thinner vocals by constantly lacing M’s tracks with Baekhyun or Kyungsoo’s singing. We could have avoided this altogether had someone given this more thought at the beginning. It’s not rocket science, folks.
With SM…you win a little, but you lose a ton. Because a wolf ate it.