Wading into a pool of rookies who get younger with each passing year, longevity is not exactly the norm. Ten years in the industry is thus quite a milestone for duo TVXQ, especially with their rocky past.
The achievement is definitely worthy of celebrating. Following 2012’s Catch Me, Tense, their seventh studio album, marks their return to the Korean industry after over a year of Japanese releases and touring the world. It highlights their talent and growth as veterans of the K-pop music industry.
The album opens with “Ten (10 Years),” a fairly obvious and literal commemoration of their anniversary in the form of an ode to their fans Cassiopeia and BigEast. The lyrics declare the duo’s love for their fans by remembering many of their past songs, such as “Miduhyo,” “Hug,” “Purple Line,” “Rising Sun,” “Catch Me” and “Keep Your Head Down.” The content is derivative and not really for anyone except fans, but paired with their lovely vocals, the idea is incredibly sweet. Unfortunately, the countdown that repeats throughout the entire song distracts from it. While it works at the beginning before the verses start, it drowns out and cuts off some of the best moments in the song.
For instance, there’s a great silence where the backing music fades out at the start of the second verse. Yunho sings “Why keep your head down,” and then we get “nine” cutting into the middle of it. At the same time, the countdown also gave them an excuse to have minimal music in the background, and perhaps that’s why they kept it throughout, as it probably would have been too bare without it. But this song could easily have been a “Before U Go” 2.0 with their vocal style. So it’s just disappointing that the countdown detracts so much from the quality of the vocals.
As a promotional single, “Something” is a new direction for the duo. “Catch Me” and the repackage single “Humanoids” were both more electronically geared with plenty of dubstep and synth. This time, though, instead of following the modern trend in music, Yunho and Changmin give us a throwback to the 1930s swing era of the United States. Derivative of jazz music of that decade, this genre has a prominent rhythm section with plenty of double bass and drums anchoring the brass and woodwinds. This style requires charisma, confidence and a mature type of sexiness, perfect for the seasoned TVXQ.
The opening of the song by itself is fantastic. With just whispers and percussion, the song is immediately intriguing and catchy. Different instruments enter and exit quickly, building to the first verse. The duo’s voices suit this style well. Yunho’s somewhat nasal timbre, in particular, stands out because of how well it matches with the brass section. The weakness of this song is the musical break, or the dance break in the music video. The lack of brass and significant increase in tempo make it just too musically different for the transition to be cohesive, but by the second half — what would be Changmin’s portion of the dance break — it thankfully returns to the original musical theme.
Despite the weak musical break, the song is actually incredibly successful. This different approach to a single, using big band style, is more widely appealing with its vintage feel and subtle tension. It’s fun and incredibly sticky. Personally, if I hear just a measure of it, it gets stuck in my head for the rest of the day. And while Lindsay wasn’t a fan of the music video, I loved it except for the part where white women were used as trophies and accessories. But on the whole, TVXQ aren’t exactly known for churning out complex story lines or thought-provoking material so their excellent choreography paired with a near-perfect song are enough for me.
We keep in the past with “Your Man (너의 남자)” with its upbeat, retro vibe. Straying into the disco genre, the track features a wide range of instruments, everything from prominent bass and soaring strings to lovely keyboard and fiery horns. It all works in sync without being a straight-up disco track à la T-ara. Instead, it feels modern, especially considering the trend of incorporating so much disco. With lyrics about being completely in love and dedicated to someone, it makes for a great follow-up to the vintage sound of “Something.”
“Moonlight Fantasy (오늘밤)” slows us down a bit, starting as a simple piano ballad. However, the song quickly transitions into another disco-influenced track. Acting as a sort of reprise of “Your Man” both lyrically and musically, it has more funk with heavier bass, and the entrance of the organ. This song is probably one of my favorites except for the opening, which is misleading and incoherent. While the ending echoes it by using the piano and slowing down again, the vocal style and use of the snare retain the funk style that the opening lacks, making it more logical and fitting.
Reminiscent of an old-school pop hit, “Beside (그 대신 내가)” has a great chorus that is incredibly catchy and makes me think of a song that I cannot quite figure out (despite hours of thought). It’s about a guy who wants to help a girl who has been hurt in the past, and considering its incredibly positive sound, that’s no surprise. The use of percussion, strings and especially horns is deft and bright, and the ending whistling wraps up the song perfectly.
Heading back to the funk influence, “Double Trouble” blends rock in with heavy distorted electric bass and guitar like Jimi Hendrix used. The track works well for them, but the duo’s vocal styles, particularly Changmin and his signature scream, make it their own. However, the song as a whole is lacking something of a fire because of the middling tempo, especially considering its lyrical content such as this gem: “The sound of the her sharp high heels pierces my hot heart.” And the use of the same riff throughout the entire track comes off as repetitive and simple, ultimately keeping the song from reaching its full potential.
“Off-Road,” the story of a couple on the road together, is a strange track. It opens with violin and piano and sounds like the start of an epic ballad, but then it abruptly shifts into a really heavy drum track. A soft piano enters, and we get this lovely ballad. The beat is too heavy for it, but the vocals are wonderful. Many critics of TVXQ as a duo point out how weak they are without the departed JYJ members, but Changmin’s strength in hitting high notes without going into a falsetto and Yunho’s continuously improving vocal technique are worthy of praise. And it’s definitely noticeable in this song that the duo can stand on their own vocally.
As the first actual ballad on the album, “Smoky Heart (갈증)” comes a bit late. With its R&B influence — that snare is so crisp and sexy — the track is just a smidge bare. It brings in some piano, synth and bass to fill in, but it’s not quite enough, especially with such a dominant snare. And it’s sad because the lyrics are full of romantic longing with a great sensual undertone.
Fall down, wet my heart
If only I could feel you through the rain that falls
From the sky, down down down, I pray that it falls, make her fall today
Let me take one sip of her, let just one sip of her fall down
Drench me just a little yeah yeah, no yeah
But where “Smoky Heart” lacks, “Love Again” excels. It balances a perfectly subdued R&B beat with plenty of synthesizer, snapping effects, and piano. Even the vocals are stronger with much more emotion this time around instead of simply subdued singing — I particularly enjoy the contrast at the final hook between Yunho’s low rapping right before Changmin’s ad lib — to give us a track that’s simultaneously powerful and romantic despite the heartbreaking message in its lyrics.
“Steppin’ (뒷모습)” is rather unremarkable though. The vocals are rather pleasant, especially at the start, when they work in harmony with the bright simplicity, which works nicely with the simple message of enjoying following someone because of love. But the song is just too light and happy-go-lucky for the intensity and excessive layering toward the end. It thus makes the song sound bland and plain and the vocals overpowering.
One of the few ballads, “Rise…” has such a sweet soundtrack lilt with the swelling violin and piano throughout. The vocals gradually crescendo and grow in strength alongside the music. Even the uplifting lyrics go wonderfully with the concept of an OST as well, as they encourage to never give up in the face of trials and hardship. It’s nothing new lyrically or musically, but it’s a tried-and-true formula that works for the duo as well.
Ending on a high note, the album closes with “Always with You (항상 곁에 있을게),” a track about a couple promising to be together forever. Another OST-like track, this song immediately made me think of a high school romance drama (something like The Heirs) whereas “Rise…” sounded more like it could’ve been for a film. With its triumphant electric guitar and crystalline piano, it’s uplifting and happy, wrapping up Tense with positivity and lightness.
With the lack of slower songs, Tense is somewhat lopsided, especially since the ballads that are there fall mostly toward the end. Perhaps that leaning toward faster paced songs makes many of the in-between tracks seem a bit lackluster when heard back to back even though they may sound fine on their own, and it’s sad that they skimped on the ballads because I always enjoy them. But all of the different older styles they’ve used throughout the album are great for them because they require the maturity and classic image that they have. I hope they continue to delve into this style change because it really suits them.