Both the Korean and Chinese versions of EX’ACT have nine tracks plus two instrumental versions of “Lucky One” and “Monster”. At first I wanted more tracks for the full-length album. EXODUS had ten, its repackage Love Me Right had fourteen, but nine tracks feels right.
The physical albums have two versions for its cover-/packaging: white for “Lucky One” and black for “Monster”. On digital copies, such as the one on Spotify, the cover features the word EXACT as presented on the SMTown Global microsite for EXO – a chemical formation. EXO as synthetic drug. Packaging-wise, I’m relieved that SM kept it to two main covers for the Korean and Chinese releases, as opposed to how it was done for EXODUS and SING FOR YOU. Individual member covers are too stressful – beautiful as they are to collect as a set.
The album opens with the first comeback track, “Lucky One”. This song is a jam and a half! There are rhythm elements here that have appeared before on “Love Me Right” and phrases that lend themselves to similar choreography. The chorus of “Lucky One” sounds similar to some stuff going on in the ending of “Love Me Right”. Probably my favorite thing about this track is the abrupt break in the middle of the chorus punctuated by a deep “ooh” that does nothing to stop the glide into the next section of the chorus. Its chorus feels like a slippery call and answer, alternating between the Korean and English lyrics with ease. As usual, Baekhyun’s lines are the most fun to sing along to. Sehun has a lot more rap lines and that’s something to cheer about, because he sounds so like himself doing them, and listening to him do that is such a pleasure. The parts that have the “A Night At the Roxbury” head-bobbing choreography give the track a fun, not-too-serious vibe that I find myself looking forward to with each listen.
I was worried for “Monster” before I heard it, mainly because some of EXO’s “powerful” tracks (“MAMA”, “Overdose”) take more than a couple of listens to get its hooks in, but I loved hearing the album version of “Monster”. I was looking forward to which English phrases from the demo would be retained, so one of the first things I did upon listening was to look up translations and Romanization of the lyrics. My favorite bit from the demo – “I’mma change your life” became “ neol mangchyeo noheulgeoya“ (“I’m gonna mess you up”) in the Korean version and “ye xiao me ni de ai” (“It also wipes out your love”). This line is sung by Lay in both the Korean version and the Chinese version and he kills it – hearing him sing the line so easily is spine-tingling. It’s not so much a “threat” as it is a promise and it’s one we want him to keep. The wall of sound on the chorus is glorious, the boys’ vocals swelling into solid harmony.
EX’ACT finds the group easing off from r&b influences in favor of EDM, and this becomes apparent as the album progresses from the third track in. There aren’t any ballads on this album. Save for the last track, “Stronger”, which I hardly regard as a ballad at all, most of the songs on EX’ACT are mid-tempo and electronic in nature.
Of these EDM-influenced tracks, track 3 – “Artificial Love” stands out. Its intro pulses with glitchy moaning that eventually sound perfunctory. This track sounds like a robot built for love emulating what it thinks is despair, but even on the line, “She don’t love me”, the vocals sound disconnected and detached. Chanyeol’s low register adlibs in the background – all growls and rumbles against the programmed beats heat up the surface, like real life human flesh against cool metal. It’s wonderfully visual. I’m coming up with so many fic prompts listening to it.
“Cloud 9” uses the boys’ vocals as percussive samples. This track has unusual verses, its pre-chorus becoming the anchor before the chorus lifts the song up. The bridge allows the song to meander through until the second half of the song. I’m going to let this one marinate a bit and let it sink in some more. It doesn’t really achieve what it sets out to do, and rather feels weighed down by the samples it uses.
Chanyeol contributed some lyrics to the next track, “Heaven”. Diverging slightly from the electronic feel of the album, the track features a more organic core, thanks to some cute, playful, plinky piano – a most-welcome refreshing sound after the homogeny of the previous electronic tracks. Chen leads in this song on a perfect bouyant note. It has to be said: I am feeling Chen on this comeback and have welcomed him to my Top 2 on my Bias List, knocking the previous reigning #2 placeholder, Park Chanyeol off. *insert shocked emoji* His vocals on this track have done a lot to secure him to his current position, especially after hearing him sing it live.
“White Noise” pulls the listener firmly back into electronica land. I suspect this song is also a slow-burner as the hook in the song pulls back to a direction opposite of where I was expecting it to go. Instead of having the vocals soar, it almost does a doubles back from its starting point and sort of drags its feet towards the chorus. I’m waiting for the staging and choreography for this on the boys’ third concert. Maybe I’ll like it better then.
There’s something almost retro about the samples on “One And Only” – the synth claps, the beats that are sort of New Jack Swing-ish. It sounds very early 90s down tempo, which continues into the next track, “They Never Know.” Both “One and Only” are the only tracks on EX’ACT that feel remotely R&B, with the latter edging out the former thanks to some interesting things going on with syncopated beats and vocal harmonies.
Now the last track. The last track, my goodness. Titled “Stronger”, this is a low-key, quiet, beautiful vocally driven track that has the boys on their best Boys II Men mode. Everyone sounds so wonderful here – the harmonies, the vocal control, the expressions – just really stripped down singing paired with a single piano. And the English lines in the chorus – “Every time I fail/Every time I fall” and “Every time I doubt/Every time I lose” making the boys sound so vulnerable, humble, human – choke me up. This was one of those married to the fandom-type songs that are supposed to make every fan feel like renewing wedding vows to their bias group and it works extremely well on that level. This is a song made for EXO-L’s, even more so than “Promise” was.
In comparing the Korean release with the Chinese one, many Mandarin-speaking fans have criticized the fact that even they are unable to understand the lyrics – the Korean members’ enunciation is that bad. Which brings us to two other points made by many fans – that EXO really suffered from three of their Chinese members leaving and of the one remaining Chinese member – why wasn’t Lay given more of a spotlight on the Chinese album?
Before I became a fan of both K and M units of EXO, I was into EXO-M more. Even though I didn’t speak Mandarin, I preferred the way EXO-M sang the material. The lyrics sounded softer, silkier, more “eloquent-sounding” compared to the coarser-sounding Korean versions. How I could describe it as “eloquent” without being able to speak the language eludes me, really.
I think it’s a valid point that a lot of the fans have made with regard to line distribution for the Chinese release. If so much of the lyrics suffered from terrible enunciation, the one member with the mastery of the language should have been given a weightier role for the Chinese release. That, or the boys really should have worked with a better vocal coach for the Chinese version.
I’m happy that EX’ACT sounds distinct from EXODUS and XOXO, and that the group is being stretched towards a new musical direction. I rather miss hearing more complex textures in terms of the musical arrangement, and the sparse EDM treatment, though complimenting the vocal work of the group quite well, tends to have a numbing effect on the ear after a while.
I hope that come EXO’s fourth full-length album, the songwriters of the group will be able to shine more. At least two of EXO’s members – Chanyeol and Lay have expressed time and again of their eagerness to write songs for the group. Lay was given a small chance with “Promise”, and this time Chanyeol was given a chance as well, but I feel that neither “Promise” nor “Heaven” exemplify even half of what these talented members are capable of bringing to the group. If Chanyeol’s V App broadcasts are any indication of the range of what he is capable of as both a songwriter and a producer, it will be very exciting to have him on-board as a creative collaborator for future EXO releases. With persistence and time, maybe SM will eventually come around to granting more creative legroom for Chanyeol and Lay, just like the company has for Donghae and Jonghyun.
It’s too early in the game to tell where EX’ACT stands against EXO’s previous full-length albums. There are informal Twitter polls that put EXO’s second album EXODUS above their debut full length, XOXO. As far as my consumption of new albums go, EX’ACT is doing pretty well. I’ve been listening to it everyday since it came out, and both comeback tracks have renewed my excitement over EXO. Sure, there are some tracks on this album that do better than others – which was pretty much the same case with the last two albums, and I’m confident that the “weaker” tracks on EX’ACT will grow on me eventually.
There is something very special about falling in love all over again for a group you’ve been following for years, and this comeback has brought that feeling back for me (plus a few little unexpected extras in the form of the bias list breakthrough artist that is Kim Jongdae). I am confident that this album will get our EXO more wins and more awards this year, and will open new doors for their strengths both as a group and as individual performers and that we, as fans will have our “work” cut out for us.