Never Don’t Mind About A Thing – Here’s EXO

EXO‘s second full length album, “Exodus” was released on March 30 after a mind-boggling ten days of secret passwords and obscure UFO sighting references littering my Twitter timeline. I never could figure out what those #Pathcode teasers were meant to solve so I didn’t even bother. I left the high-speed sleuthing to your average EXO-L, and by “average”, of course I meant bat-shit crazy dedicated. The answers to the teasers’ riddles were up within seconds of the videos’ posting, which meant that EXO-L were incredibly astute, or that I wasn’t the stan I claimed I was. By the fifth day of the teasers, EXO-L had figured out that the first letters of the cities featured in the videos would eventually spell out the title of EXO’s comeback track, “Call Me Baby.” It seemed reaching, but by the time the last teaser was released, all the pieces fit.

album-cover-for-exos-exodus

Sometime in 2013, before the repackage for “XOXO” was released, the fandom found itself in a panic when a Japanese merchant site listed twelve individual covers for the as-yet-to-be-announced repackage. That turned out to be false, but maybe we shouldn’t have let our relief lull us into complacency because that’s exactly what SM did with “EXODUS,” only instead of coming out with twelve covers they came out with twenty. It was sort of SM’s way of saying “We’re not missing the same opportunity twice.”

Bastards.

EXODUS-Album-Cover

When the digital version of the album was released, I had no qualms about downloading it. As a fan of EXO, I am expected to buy all twenty versions of the same album (which I will inevitably), so get off my back about doing things legally. The digital version followed the iTunes track sequence, which differed slightly from the physical album’s track sequence. This bothered me because I’m picky about sequencing that way.

“Exodus” is different from EXO’s debut album “XOXO” in tone and headspace. A lot closer in scope to EXO’s debut mini-album “MAMA” than it is to anything on “XOXO”, or its repackage “Growl,” the second full-length album consists of ten tracks. Two of these tracks have been previously introduced during EXO’s pre-MAMA teaser era – “El Dorado”, which appeared on Chanyeol’s teaser, and “Beautiful”, which appeared on Lay, Baekhyun and Chen’s. These two tracks were highly anticipated, and the full tracks are completely satisfying.

What’s interesting is on the Chinese version, the vocals are supposed to be better distributed with the remaining members of EXO-M down to four. Lay benefits most from Luhan’s absence – we know he’s singing lines that Luhan could have sung. On certain tracks, the main vocalists from K will step in to lend their voices – D.O on the Chinese version of “My Answer”, and Baekhyun on “Beautiful” – but I had hoped that SM could have grabbed the opportunity for Xiumin to take a more proactive role especially on the ballads. Xiumin has a beautiful voice, but even with two members gone from EXO-M, his singing presence stays the way it usually is on the album, with only a few lines scattered in between phrases.

“Call Me Baby”‘s beat is heavy and elastic, requiring a lot of space to stretch to absorb its impact. The buh-buh-buhmps are squelchy over the harmonies, and there’s a plucky guitar riff sample that is just riding the rhythm section. The final mix makes the backing vocals wind through the verses and chorus like a church choir. There are just so many perfect moments in this song that by the time one sinks in, another one glides in. From Kai’s “boom boom boom” to the first “What up” to Baek’s perfectly executed “Heyyyy girl…” to that delicious drop – “Call Me Baby” is a breathtaking comeback song. The bridge is especially sublime – when the beat slows itself down to a pulse, the harmonies start filling up the space. For the duration of the bridge, the vocals soar. For a group whose main and active vocalists comprise about a third of the total number of members, the track maximizes all members’ vocal strengths through smart lyrics distribution.

“Transformer” takes a few listens to get its hooks in, but its charm relies on how the rough parts alternate with the smooth spots. The rap line makes the song edgy, but the vocal line brightens it up on the chorus. It’s a little more tense than what EXO had previously on “XOXO”, but less dire than “Overdose.” The ominous “tick tick boom boom ’bout to blow” comes second to “you slow down then you speed up” when it comes to giving EXO-L ammo for dialogue in future fics. Someone better work in “mega girl” into a fic soon, too. It sounds awesome.

EXO gave a preview of new material during their second concert The EXO’luxion in March, which made fans wonder which of the new stuff would end up on the new album. The Lay-penned “The Promise” was particularly strong, but it was not included here. I would have picked that over “What If” – it sounds like Bones Thugs and Harmony-lite.

“My Answer”, which was also prominently featured during the concert is the vocal line showcase. Performed live, it beautifully shows off the strengths of each of EXO’s main singers. It gives Suho a chance to join in as a main vocalist. His clean, controlled vocals strike a good balance between the tension of Baekhyun’s stretches and D.O.’s r&b runs. The highlight of the song comes after the bridge, when Baekhyun delivers that thrilling “you” – it is singularly the most important melisma in the whole song. Goosies all over.

My beef with the iTunes sequencing is that it places “Exodus” right after “My Answer.” The transition from ballad to tense dance track is jarring to say the least. Thematically, it’s “Transformer”‘s twin. The piano is furtive and sneaky on another song about a complicated, controlling and ultimately cruel girl EXO calls “queen.” Again, but for an entirely different reason, Baekhyun is the highlight of the song – when he goes slightly sharp on “she’s dangerously hot”, it’s a party-popping, fist pumping moment.

“El Dorado” is my favorite track on “Exodus” because its vibe is so different from the rest of the tracks on the album. I’m with iTunes on the sequencing of this track – sitting smack dab in the middle like the centerpiece it is. “El Dorado” is a track that is unequivocally, unmistakably an EXO track. Cut from the same cloth as “MAMA” was, its subject matter is more conceptual than it is situational. It takes on larger ideas in the same way that “MAMA” did, and it’s almost as weird. It fits the EXO mythos perfectly.

Loving the KaiSoo interaction at the beginning of “Playboy” – it’s a sly wink that goes out to all the rabid shippers. EXO-L went wild for the choreography of this song in EXO’luxion – with its equal opportunity innuendoes that had the members pairing off to rock against each other back-to-back. The thirst is real, my friends. Even without the choreography, the track is wildly visual. Written by SHINee’s Jonghyun, “Playboy” has the trademarks of Jonghyun’s songwriting style – slinky, sexy and slick.

Flashes of “Hurt”‘s sharp, stabbing beats were first heard over Xiumin’s #Pathcode teaser. The track sounds like a feverish nightmare with the broken waltz at the beginning and then swooning with the disbelieving “you hurt me” on its chorus. On the Chinese version, Xiumin takes on the part of the chorus, and the hardcore XiuHan shipper in me likes to think he adds some real emotional weight to some of the phrases.

In the Chinese version of “Lady Luck”, the word “fortune” almost sounds like the word “virgin”, which had me Googling to verify if I’d heard it correctly. Lonely Starbucks lovers, please take note. The growling beatbox loop at the beginning would have been awesome had one of the members developed some real beatboxing skills, and I would love to know where this came from. And that bridge! When it stutters into the moaning it just becomes this crazy moment that had me going What Was That? First come the hip thrusts and flailing around in water during concerts and then references to quick and dirty anonymous sex. What’s happening, lads? Noona likey.

The digital version of “Exodus” closes with the serene “Beautiful”, a track that was featured as Suho’s solo on EXO’s first concert, The Lost Planet. The song suits his vocal range – the track is sweetness and radiance all throughout. The blinking “Oh you’re beautiful, beautiful”  is an angelic chorus in the background. It closes the album on a gentle note and I’m glad it was included here.

“Exodus” eschews the One Direction-esque vibe from some of “XOXO”‘s tracks. There aren’t any “365”‘s found on this album. Considering their discography so far, there weren’t any songs like that from their debut mini-album either, so perhaps EXO are returning to their intended form, which deviated slightly with their first full-length. While I absolutely love “XOXO”, I’m glad “Exodus” didn’t attempt to recreate or recycle any of the tracks that could have sounded better on the repackage.

I’m scared shitless for the eventual repackage when I haven’t even made good on purchasing my twenty copies of “Exodus”, but I look forward to hearing some new tracks with its release. Hopefully, “The Promise” will be included. There are a couple other tracks from the pre-MAMA teaser era that have not yet been released as full tracks – “Run and Gun” and “Metal.” Both have been shelved for the time being, and I do wonder how both will hold in a future release. “El Dorado” and “Beautiful” were both fully threshed out and thankfully sound fresh for tracks that have been around for about three years since their debut in 2012.

Staging has always been a strong suit of SM’s – it doesn’t matter how many members share the stage at any given time. EXO are more than equipped to handle sudden choreography changes based on member attendance, an extension of being able to adapt to different versions of choreography depending on the audience. The OT10 dynamic is snug. Better distribution of song parts, higher visibility and more opportunities for the current member lineup is what I look forward to in the months to come. Perhaps an all-ballad sub-unit for D.O., Baekhyun and Suho down the line, as well as solo efforts from the songwriters from the group, mainly Chanyeol and Lay? I hope SM figures out how to bring the focus on “General Trend” Xiumin. Though more visible than ever in the group thanks to his daring abs-flashing sequence during EXO’luxion, I’d say he needs more opportunities to show his “charms” and to show what he can do both as a singer and a dancer. EXO’s skills as individual members are surely becoming more apparent, and it’s wonderful being able to witness them growing in the K-pop industry.   It’s exciting to see what EXO’s next musical steps will be.

 

 

 

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