Say hello, my dear friends, to the return of the kings. I’m not talking about EXO coming back after 4 months. I’m talking about EXO coming back after a year and a half—the old EXO we know and love, the EXO we’ve been missing in the string of underwhelming title tracks that started the day “Lotto” dropped in August of 2017 and continued up until today. Title track “Universe” from EXO’s latest annual winter album is the first great EXO single since “Monster,” and the EP itself is everything EXO has always been capable of: creative, inventive, balanced, discerning. It’s art. In other words, it’s superior. Almost everything EXO has released recently pales in comparison.
“Universe” was obviously written with EXO’s vocalists in mind, because it could not suit their voices more perfectly. The melodies themselves are wonderful, but sung by this vocal line, they turn to gossamer. This is what the last winter album’s “For Life” wishes it sounded like. The production of “Universe” also has a different feel to it than other EXO tracks lately: There’s a sense of a vast but slightly submerged spatial depth in the soundscape of the song, as if EXO are singing in an enormous cavern or a deep valley. This isn’t just an effect of the vocal echo but also a result of the broad, sweeping sound of the piano and electric guitar. Usually EXO opts for a more precise sound, with hyper-distinct sonic details and close, clean vocals. “Universe” goes in a different direction. Such a broad, zoomed-out production style would not have worked on almost any other song, but in such a dramatic ballad as this one, it creates room for enormous vocal moments, background harmonies that blend like watercolors at varying depths, and changing instrumental textures depending on the guitar’s distance from the forefront of the instrumental.
Every song on the EP is a standout. Back in their early days, EXO used to push the boundaries of K-pop with every new release, but mid-2016, that innovative side of their music faded. It’s not that it vanished completely, but it has certainly been absent from title tracks. Probably the only recent EXO songs that truly measure up have been B-sides “Winter Heat” from 2016’s winter album and “Forever” from this summer’s “The War.” But even these, while compositionally imaginative, were not as stylistically exciting as the songs on “Universe.”
Take “Fall,” which strikes this eclectic balance between light, fairy-on-tip-toes sounds and heavy, black hole moments—combining, for example, delicate acoustic guitar with fuzzy sledgehammer bass drops. Or take “Been Through,” which has this peculiar tune that follows a strange stuttering rhythm in the verses. Similarly inventive, quirky rhythms play heavily into the subdued mid-tempo “Stay,” one of the most exciting and original songs on “Universe.” “Good Night,” though perhaps less surprising than other songs on the album, has a shimmering instrumental (what on earth is that recurring sound? Are those just super glassy-sounding synths? Or is that, like, a xylophone?) and an absolutely gorgeous vocal arrangement that give the song a fairytale atmosphere. And finally, “Lights Out,” which I think may be my favorite, could easily have replaced “Universe” as the title track—it’s another broad ballad that demonstrates incredible vocals as well as wonderful composition and production. In the melody there’s that sense of discernment, of carefulness, that collides with creativity to birth something I can only call artistry. Unlike “Universe,” though, “Lights Out” never explodes into something huge. Instead it shows restraint, channeling the building energy into an unsurpassably tender vocal delivery of the gentle final chorus that for me was the best moment on the album.
If it’s not obvious enough at this point, I’ve got to say that I’m totally starry-eyed for this album. EXO has finally come out with a title track worthy of their power. It’s not that I didn’t like any of their recent singles—in fact, I actually liked “Power” a lot—but nothing was on the level EXO should be on, until now. It’s so nice to have that EXO back. I’m proud of them, and now I’m looking forward to their next comeback in 2018 with renewed anticipation.
UNIVERSE: KAYBOP OR KAYFLOP? Oh, the boppiest of bops.
Take a look at EXO’s “Universe” MV below: