"Tense" proves a very important point and reinforces the DBSK identity, which is essentially going one step further with trends by mastering them. Trends are transient, yes, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given the same attention and musicality that more "classic" styles are. This applies to other art forms as well -- can you imagine the fashion industry with just fast fashion retailers like Forever 21? Of course not, and it's the same thing with pop music, you need a whole range of qualities and executions of trends. DBSK takes the mold and makes the best possible product out of it, using the best possible material.
Younha showed what pop music could be last year, through "Tense", DBSK show what a pop act can do, and the vital role talent (of all kinds) plays in the making of good pop. That good material will take you places, yes, but paired with equally good execution a song will take you to the moon and back. You can have a good song or a good idea ruined by bad production, like "Twinkle," just like how you can have good execution ruined by a bad idea.
The album opens with "Ten (10 years)", with lyrics taken from a mix of past DBSK singles and prominent songs, and for comeback week was their intro number. It's half fan service, with the lyrics and all, but also builds anticipation for the rest of the album. "Ten" as a song doesn't really go anywhere by itself per se, but it's more about the means than it is about the destination. The melody is gentle but firm, and slowly builds up from beautiful, simmering verses to intense, belting Changmin at the bridges and shifts between the two for the entire three minutes. It's a song that focuses on Yunho and Changmin, and depends on them to bring it places -- the dynamics, the explosions and the build-up all come from the vocals, and the instrumental is just drones on, most evidently in the "one... two... three..."'s throughout.
When I first heard what "Something" was going to be, I was honestly dead scared. SM has a history of sucking all the life out of their "jazz" and "swing" attempts, TTS' "Twinkle" being the prime example, and they also have a history of not learning from their mistakes, so that was enough to make me worry. But thankfully, I worried for nothing, because "Something" is an outstanding song that fits Yunho and Changmin, and the DBSK identity, like a well-tailored glove. "Something" turned out to be the epitome of "Tense" -- a song that stresses the equal importance of a good song and good execution.
Mainly, I want to talk about the reasons why there is so much life in "Something," as opposed to past SM attempts at this sound. One is Yunho and Changmin's vocals. This is a kind of sound that requires the effortless mastery I always look for -- an instrumental as packed and chaotic as the one on "Something" needs and melody that is executed with conviction, by vocalists who are confident in their abilities and who know what to do with them. There's no room for hesitation on this melody, which is perfectly fine because Yunho and Changmin are not the types to hesitate. That lack of hesitation on their part is the reason why there is such a wide range of technique on the melody. Yunho's staccato-like first verse, Changmin's smooth second verse, the quick shift from melodic to choppy by both of them at the chorus, all perfectly executed.
The other reason why "Something" works is because of the arrangement and the production. There is a push-pull action happening with the instrumentation throughout the entire song and while it is what makes this such a fun package, it does get quite technical. The bass line provides the beat and sets the tempo -- it's usually what gives a song its weight and fullness. On the other hand, the brass line, which is very prominent on the song, most often is what producers use to make a song playful -- it's that part of the song that's all over the place and that's free to experiment. But on "Something," both the bass and the brass do both, by taking turns. If you notice, the most important and most prominent parts of the brass line happen during the up beat, and the bass line, of course, occurs on the down beat. Adding the melody into this mix, all the end lines of the melodic lines end on an up beat as well. (As opposed to "Twinkle" whose melodic lines end on a down beat.) Both the depth and the playfulness are constant throughout. This not only allows you to hear everything that's happening to the song admits all the chaos, it also emphasizes the lows, and more importantly, the highs. It's a song you'd want to dance to because it actually gets its metaphoric "feet" off the ground, and encourages you to follow suit.
The rest of "Tense" was definitely not a disappointment. "Your Man" builds on the high "Somebody" brought us to. It's a striking song -- one that is just as unafraid as "Somebody" is. Beginning, middle, and end are all highs, but what gives the song dynamics is the how. The central elements of the first verse are the melody and the vocals -- gracefully urgent, and supported by an equally urgent instrumentation. By the chorus the melody relinquishes some of the attention to what's happening behind, the catchy trumpet line (that I can't get out of my head), and as a whole the slightly more chaotic instrumentation. The second verse sees the entrance of a gutsy electric guitar and later a more prominent drum line because of the variations, behind the constant (but still striking) melody. And the middle 8 simmers down but the chymes and all the sparkly instruments that build the song back up catch attention. All the elements of "Your Man" contribute to the intensity, they all give it different kinds of kick -- because they're proficient enough to do so.
The focus of "Beside" really is the melody. There's quite a bit happening on the instrumental as well, with the presence of some bell-like loops and subtly (but not flat) dramatic brass, bass and string lines. They can very well stand on their own, but the presence of the melody makes them stand just that much better -- there is style in the melody as well, not only does it contribute the substance and technique of the vocals, it's also half of what makes the style successful. The melody is proof of that -- it's a beautiful melody to listen to, it's sung well, but its composition, where they put what note, the dynamics that went into it and how the words correspond to notes, are just as beautiful. This is a singer's melody in the sense that it's something you can sing without instrumentation and it will still carry majority of the motif of the original recording.
By this point I thought all the good songs had been exhausted, usually albums run out of steam even earlier than the eighth track, but I was proven wrong until the very end. "Smoky Heart" is a refreshing take on a Yoo Young Jin staple (at last that's how it sounds -- I'm not entirely sure if Yoo Young Jin did compose it), because Changmin's vocals make it a lot lighter. Songs like SM The Ballad's "Hot Times," or even "Good Night" off 2012's "Catch Me," were weighed down both by the nature of the vocals and the production -- but "Smoky Heart," contrary to its name, chose to go with a production that brought out the song's clarity. And not just the vocals are given that sharp treatment -- the piano line was treated similarly, as well as the choice of the snare drum as the focal point of the drum line, as well as the bass loop. And so even with the multi-tracked vocals at the chorus, the nature of the melody and its execution are both in agreement that it should sound very clean and sharp.
The more upbeat songs, "Steppin'" and "항상 곁에 있을게" are strong filler tracks that I'd willingly listen to if they ever came up again. They're also the extreme of what I say on other songs that the execution makes the package. "Steppin'" is that mischievous, "young" (surprising for DBSK), boy band staple, complete with quaint synth loops and "doo doo doo"s -- if they ever staged this it would be with simple choreography, a colorful stage, and backup singers snapping and swaying in the background. "항상 곁에 있을게," on the other hand, sounds like something out of "To The Beautiful You"'s soundtrack, which is not an insult at all -- if anything, that soundtrack is my baseline because instead of trying so hard to be "more than an OST," it embraced the sound and did it well. "항상 곁에 있을게" is the same -- clean production, pretty elements with the right balance between saccharine sweet/cheesy synths and melodic lines and gutsy electric guitars, as well as unashamed execution. If you're going to do it, might as well do it well. "Love Again" is somewhere in between the fillers and the rest of the album -- it has the style, with the loops and the synths and all the little trinkets happening behind, but they're not as pronounced as the other songs. It's a pleasant melody and a pleasant listen, but slightly overpowered by the likes of "Off-Road" or "Ten."
"Tense" is the extreme positive of the balance between style and substance. It's an album that oozes style and boasts of cutting-edge production techniques used on current pop trends, but at the same time it has solid musical foundations and consistently confident vocals from Yunho and Changmin. A fitting package for a group that embodies all the good possibilities K-Pop can open up.
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