First off, many thanks to those who read (and hopefully liked!) my last review on DBSK’s Keep Your Head Down. As per the numerous requests I received, I’ve decided to review JYJ’s Their Rooms, Our Story album as well. However, I should preface this review by saying that because of the irregular nature of JYJ’s minialbum, I can’t write about it in the same way that I did DBSK’s Keep Your Head Down. I can’t talk about their live performances or their music videos or even their concept because there just weren’t any. But there are a bunch of interesting things about this album that I do want to discuss.
1. THE MUSIC.
And, of course, I want to discuss the music. Because the music was bomb.
The tracks on Their Rooms were completely written, composed, performed, and produced by the JYJ members. DBSK bias aside, I’ve always had a ton of respect for Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu as musicians because they’re perhaps the only idol stars in their generation that regularly compose their own works – and are damn good at it. I’m willing to partly attribute this to the fact that the trio have probably never had to compose for pay – that is, even during their time in SM, they were never told to create the ‘next hit song’ for such-and-such group like most commissioned composers attached to large entertainment companies. Rather, they would write songs simply for the joy of it, and if they were lucky, those songs would be included in an upcoming album.
Based on their previous compositions both in and out of DBSK, it seems like the trio isn’t really keen on producing ‘lead-single’ type songs – that is, those annoyingly catchy head-stickers that might not be great music, but nonetheless launch a short-lived cultural phenomenon and ultimately rake in the bucks despite the fact. Maybe it’s just an issue of personal preference and style, but none of the trio’s previously released compositions resemble your typical K-pop hit single. Even Jaejoong and Yoochun’s “Colors,” which was released as a single in Japan, is remarkably low-key for a promotional track. As composers, it’s just not JYJ’s style to compose anything that’s intentionally catchy or marketable. This doesn’t mean that they intentionally make their songs uncatchy or unmarketable. Their compositional style just doesn’t fit the typical, fluffy, gimmicky K-pop mold.
So what are we left with, then? Good music that retains all the special unique qualities of Korean pop, but leaves out all the gimmicky bells and whistles that turn a song from a piece of art into a marketable product.
In other words, we are left with perfection.
A slight hyperbole, of course – Their Rooms is far from being a perfect album – but it’s probably fair to say that JYJ is good at what they do, and Their Rooms is the best example of their musical abilities as composers to date. My primary complaint with Their Rooms as an album is that, despite the fact that their skills as composers are well exhibited in the album, it seems that the members have yet to figure out how to compose songs that also make the best use of their vocal abilities. Because, let’s face it: half of us DBSK fans first fell in love with the group because of their raw talent as singers and performers. I didn’t like “Bolero” because it was a good song – because it really wasn’t. I liked it because of its epic, gravity-defying, mind-blowing ad-lib bridge Now with Their Rooms, we’ve finally got great music…but the music just doesn’t enable the members’ voices to blow me away like they did before.
The other big flaw in JYJ’s work is that their composition style is based more on their personal musical style and taste, rather than focusing on variety and mass likeability. This is in direct concordance with my aforementioned sentiment that JYJ has thus far only composed for their own artistic sake and not for the sake of the buckaroos. For example, I enjoyed “Mission” because JYJ’s musical style gels with my own. But you’ll notice that the flow and rhythm of “Mission” is similar to a lot of JYJ’s other works – even works found in this same album – and unless you really like that flow and rhythm, then you’ll have a hard time liking any other JYJ songs because they all sound somewhat similar. In this respect, JYJ is really similar to a lot of niche, esoteric indie artists. Indie musicians don’t produce music for the masses; they write and perform the music that they like. If a select few people happen to like that music, then that’s great. But chances are, most indie music won’t appeal to the masses – and it’s not supposed to; most indie artists would probably die before sacrificing their artistic preferences for the sake of commercialization. Indie artists take pride in not “selling out.”
But JYJ aren’t indie artists. They’ve spent the last seven years of their lives being commercialized pop idols. Musicians or not, they can’t get around that well-established public image. They’ve always been associated with distributing music that appeals to the masses, whether that music was composed by Yoochun or Yoo Young-jin. Now that they’ve left the (comparative) creative stranglehold that was SM Entertainment, JYJ is now free to do whatever music they want to do, but this doesn’t come without a risk: they can write and release music that they like and maintain their artistic integrity – or they can try to keep their mass appeal by composing songs that are crowd (and wallet) pleasers. That’s why Their Rooms have received a bunch of negative reviews from fans and non-fans alike. The primary complaint is that the album is too generic. I’m disinclined to believe that the album is generic, but I will say that it lacks variety. If you like JYJ’s personal style, then this album will sound awesome. If you don’t, then it will sound like one, flat line of blah. Personally, I really like JYJ’s style, which makes it very difficult to review this album on an objective level – because, to be quite honest, JYJ’s work in Their Rooms holds little musical merit apart from taste-based likeability (or bias, since you folks seem to like that word so much).
JYJ is still young, though, and they’re still finding their footing while balancing fourteen new hats (composer, producer, cat-breeder) on their heads. If the group eventually finds that magic place where their vocal skill, performance skill, compositional skill, and varied creativity come together in some sort of pop-magic synergy, then I will not only be one happy fan – I will be one delighted music enthusiast.
Their Rooms isn’t built and promoted like a typical K-pop album (or like any pop music album, so to speak), so it doesn’t really have a defined ‘lead single’ – but I have a feeling that “Mission” is supposed to kindasorta fill that role. It’s punchy, it’s dynamic, and it’s a really great opener to an album that’s been primarily hyped as some sort of epic sob story in CD form. My one complaint: is Yoochun really still using that tacky “You better recognize us” line?
Get out your Kleenex, readers – because, I mean, with this album, you had to have seen it coming, right?
“Nine” was first revealed at JYJ’s concert in Seoul last year, and the title is said to represent the nine years in which the five DBSK members had spent together – from their training days until today. It’s not terribly remarkable as a song, but it does fill the obligatory angst mold without going into K-drama OST territory, which makes this song a rare find in the world of K-pop ballads. I approve.
I love this song, but I think it does a terrible job of conveying the message presented by the lyrics. It’s meant to sound very open and free – and I get that the song is supposed to be about ‘freeing oneself from the puppet strings of SM Entertainment’ but there’s little to no musical progression and variety within the song that evidences the struggle. I should not feel like getting and dancing to a song that’s supposed to be about being imprisoned by puppet strings. The lyrics tell a story; the music does not.
In addition, the editing and mixing seemed a little sloppy on this one.
4. “Fallen Leaves”
I would say that this is a fantastic, beautiful, gorgeous song if not for the fact that the verses remind me of this one song in Spamalot, and my inner eight-year-old just can’t seem to let that go.
Jokes aside, “Fallen Leaves” is THE obligatory emotional soliloquy on an album that itself is billed as one big emotional soliloquy – but thank goodness; it’s executed well. Amongst the three, I feel that Junsu is highly underrated as a composer, but I’ve yet to see either Yoochun or Jaejoong compose a ballad at the caliber of Junsu’s “I Can Soar” or “Fallen Leaves.” With “Fallen Leaves,” I think Junsu picked up a few hints from his work in Mozart, as the song is very similar to the style of the music in that show – and he does it justice. The vocal line is clean but effective…and extra props to the strings coordinator – the strings really were the highlight of the song. (DNW the random electric guitar during the second chorus. Ruining my flow.)
Jaejoong, Junsu, and Yoochun are good composers. I’ve rehashed this point so many times in this review to the point where I’m almost sick of admitting it. But besides my aforementioned gripe about their current inability to integrate their vocal skills with their compositional skills, I also take issue with the fact that their compositions oftentimes lack musical complexity. Like I said in the intro, a lot of their songs use very similar beats – probably because those beats are what really grooves with them on a personal level, but even as a person who generally enjoys JYJ’s style, I’d like to hear some variety. “I.D.S.” is further up there on the scale of musical complexity, but it still has a similar flow to “Mission” – and if the only two uptempo songs on the same minialbum sound similar to each other, then someone needs to have a good chat with the folks in the creative department.
Despite my technical gripes with the song, though, “I.D.S.” is still one of my favorite cuts off the album. The mixing is great, the vocal execution is refined (Junsu does one really surprisingly beautiful line in the middle of the song (around 2:24) that totally caught me off guard), and it’s well-structured.
6. “Song Without a Name”
Oh. This song.
I’ll discuss the controversial hullabaloo surrounding this album in the next part, so we’ll save the dramarama of the lyrics for later. Admittedly, this song isn’t really great for casual listening – firstly, because the song is eight freaking minutes long, and secondly, the song gets very choppy once you hit the two minute mark. Apparently, this is because some of the names were bleeped out of the lyrics – hence the title of the song – so you’ve got a rap line that sounds very jolty and awkward, but it’s for good reason.
The song is 80% rap, and the background beat remains the same for the most part, so there’s not much I can say on a purely musical level. We haven’t seen Yoochun’s rapping skill for quite some time, and I’m still a little irked that his singing was featured over his rapping on JYJ’s last album. I dig his style, so I’m glad to see it’s back. Jaejoong’s falsetto sounds a little out-of-place at times, and Junsu gets a little raspy and…oh gosh, I just can’t make any musical criticisms of this song without feeling like a jerk.
Apologies for the rather calculating view on this album thus far – I know that the primary purpose of Their Rooms isn’t solely to provide quality music, but it seems to me that JYJ is trying to assert themselves not as idol stars, but as musicians – and in that respect, they deserve to be evaluated fairly. Speaking from a purely musical perspective, I think the material on Their Rooms surpasses a lot of the material in the mainstream K-pop market, and it’s a damn shame that JYJ can’t promote this album due to legal restrictions. (Not that I believe this album should be marketed, but these guys’ work deserves greater attention than the controversy propagated by the media…but, once again, I’ll save that for the next part.)
Nonetheless, I can’t bring myself to give this album a formal rating – for one, I don’t believe it’s really fair to evaluate Their Rooms on too deep a musical level, because it’s not meant to be an artistic masterpiece; it’s meant to be JYJ’s outlet of expression regarding an issue that, for too long, has been shrouded in media-spurned controversy. It’s like critiquing the artistic merit of a Valentine’s day card made by a five-year old for his mom. Despite my penchant for heartlessly critiquing K-pop idols’ works to no end, even I just can’t go that far. My biggest critique on this album is its lack of musical variety – but considering the message behind the album, I doubt that musical variety was the last thing on JYJ’s minds. And that’s okay by me.
Watch out for Part 2 of this review next week!