Around 2011 or perhaps even late 2010, there was a shift in the body of critical opinion on SM Entertainment’s idol artists. Consistently strong showings by F(x) and SHINee, the agency’s B- or C-list groups (so to speak), led to a refocusing of critical scrutiny away from the likes of TVXQ, SNSD, and Super Junior. Now here we are in late 2012, and after a couple more great releases from the younger two groups, the shift is complete: the older flagship groups are relative afterthoughts to Korea’s critics, while the young ‘uns share the limelight.
In the case of TVXQ, this is an especially curious phenomenon. SM is an agency that still predominantly pre-produces and assigns songs to its groups. So why doesn’t the company’s most historically successful and experienced group get the good albums? You could point out that both F(x) and SHINee have certain irreplaceable characteristics, and you’d be right. But it would be harder to argue that TVXQ, even with just two members now, don’t have anything comparable. It would be nearly impossible to argue that it’s a matter of talent, and completely impossible to argue on experience.
Before we talk more on that, let’s look to Catch Me, TVXQ’s sixth studio album, for clues. One initial impression is that this is another scatter plot of an album; the other is that this album is a huge tone-down from previous works.
Catch Me covers its share of sounds – there’s the bread-and-butter pop ballad and electro-dance, which is expanded by flavors of dubstep, rock, hard electronic, and R&B. As in previous albums, these embellishments end up as just that – a little dabbling to keep the basic formula from going stale, rather than any real attempt to explore genre conventions. The dubstep and rock are most egregiously guilty of this; 인생은 빛났다 (Viva) doesn’t need the wobble and wub tacked onto its throbbing electro beat, and Getaway’s steely drums and riffs are woefully out of place in the album’s flow.
Lead single Catch Me is an example of this all happening in one song. It’s got a kernel of a good song: the piano line is promising, the refrain is imbued with vocal catharsis and string-powered scale, and Changmin’s requisite screaming is kept to a minimum.
Unfortunately, that’s countered by a cheap, frivolous intro and outro as well as an unnecessary distortion breakdown in the bridge. If Yoo Young-jin intended to portray an owner-and-owned kind of disturbed schizophrenia, as the lyrics suggest, then that’s one thing. But you have to do a good job of selling the metaphor in that case, and the dubstep doesn’t really get that done. Maybe it’s an inherent bias with the style, but I also think the bridge could have been more subtly introduced and even more deconstructive than it is now.
Meanwhile, the tone-down approach is most apparent in the fact that Catch Me’s weight lies upon its ballads, not its dance tunes. This is the first TVXQ studio album to give me this impression, although Mirotic (2008) came close – more on that in a bit. In Catch Me, even amongst the barrage of edgy synths blasting out every other track, the most impactful songs are all down-tempo. Destiny’s elegant, jamming melody and Good Night’s thick, old-TVXQ atmosphere give us two of the album’s finest moments. Owing to competent arrangement and effortless performances, pop ballads like How Are You and I Swear wouldn’t be too out of place in a proper genre album.
Now, it’s worth noting the parallel to Mirotic here. That album was also noticeably lighter on the ears: its dance headliners, Mirotic and Wrong Number, took the heavy-duty synth texture and sharp beats out of Yoo Young-jin’s SMP, and the ballads – notably Love In The Ice – were firmly within the album’s core sensibilities. It was a solid pop album, and its style seemed like it’d be sustainable even when TVXQ was much older. (To digress, it also introduced the newer SM tradition of hypnotic, chant-like vocals and imagery, but that bit is mostly missing in Catch Me. An exception is Gorgeous, a very Super Junior-like manifestation of that style.)
Mirotic was likely the long-term direction, the steady state, for TVXQ; if not exactly like it, then at least a similar tone-down, low-edge approach. The album did well, but – to use some more economics parlance – the group’s split came as an exogenous shock; Keep Your Head Down (2011) attempted to stabilize things by reverting to power SMP and establishing that two can do what five used to do. And now, Catch Me is a step back towards that long-term trend.
And that means TVXQ still hasn’t found a real identity to hang its hat on. To return to the earlier question: F(x) and SHINee are able to produce consistently because they (and SM) have found this identity. This is more than just a personality quirk; it’s what defines the group. F(x)’s identity of deconstructive attitude and spliced narratives allows everything inside and outside an album to be tailored to that; and because its members have gotten very good at their thing, SM can make the next release even more uniquely F(x). TVXQ can’t produce a Lucifer or an Electric Shock, because to do so requires a kind of consistency different from what it’s had; one that people will believe and immediately associate with the duo. Musical success in today’s idol industry starts and ends with this idea.
SM can no longer throw one-size-fits-all music at teams like they did with H.O.T. and Shinhwa and even early TVXQ. Nor can they switch concepts around every album like they did with Fly To The Sky and CSJH The Grace. And they know all this. TVXQ was once headed down a promising direction of classy moderation. I think that process is starting up again, if only gradually.
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
1. Catch Me
2. 인생은 빛났다 (Viva)
4. 비누처럼 (Like A Soap)
5. I Don’t Know
6. 꿈 (Dream)
7. How Are You
9. I Swear
11. Good Night
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the individual and not of hellokpop as a whole.
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