20160215_seoulbeats_jaejoong_nox2Since Kim Jaejoong’s album release announcement at his farewell fanmeeting last year, fans have been waiting with bated breath for the singer’s sophomore full-length effort. After some confusion over the actual release date (before C-JeS clarified the album’s digital release was to precede the physical CD), NO.X has finally been unleashed on the world (slaying charts in its wake). My God, it was well worth the wait.

NO.X gives us a different side of the fluid artist, his sound being at once powerful and emotional, then becoming silken and deliberate. Unlike his first forays into rock, Jaejoong pushes his exploration of the genre a bit further. While I was his tentative steps into the genre (with a compact yet effective mixture of subgenres), and WWW was Jaejoong’s bolder exploration, giving us much more of his emotional and even self-indulgent side, NO.X takes a central sound — music that’s got more of a refined finish — and integrates much of his soul into its smoothness.

There are moments of such incredible vocal tenderness, it’s almost astonishing. Opening track “Good Morning Night” opens on a pure high note and carries that song’s higher register with ease, allowing fans and new listeners an opportunity to gauge his range from the album’s opening notes. These moments of crystal clear and fully open vocals work to bolster the richness of the compositions, and in turn each song’s construction gives height to the vocal.

No one can accuse Jaejoong of becoming vocally complacent, especially given the poppier slant to some of the music. While the constraints of pop don’t always allow for vocal sophistication, Jaejoong uses what he knows of both genres to push for fuller vocals and more chances at experimentation with his range. Tracks like the album’s second single, “Love You More,” are a bright spot in what can sometimes be heavy-handed bouts of overemotional cooing on the vocalist’s part.

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That being said, there is certainly a fair amount of songs wrought with poignancy. Tracks like “Love You to Death,” “Drawer,” “Blame,” and “Although We Met Again, We Would Meet Again” all provide delicate compositions for Jaejoong to wrap his high tenor around, pushing all the power from his diaphragm, and giving us that lovely chest voice he’s known for. While the latter fits more on the OST-style balladry most Korean music tends to favor, his voice was seemingly made for the construction. Though musically the weakest track on the album, it still serves to highlight just how rich his voice can be.

However, the album is more heavily saturated with a varied musical palette. This turn for the more vocally diverse creates a surprising amount of clarity regarding Jaejoong’s capabilities as a singer. While songs like “Love You More” and “Do You Know?” provide listeners more soothing pop-rock, track “Good Luck” explores Jaejoong’s love of rock that errs closer to punk than pop. Though no one would ever confuse his sound with the Sex Pistols or The Ramones, and certainly not the kick-in-your-teeth rawness of his compatriots of DIEALRIGHT, there’s no denying Jaejoong manages to hold his own with songs with a harder edge, the growl in his high tenor giving the album an added layer of guttural texture to an otherwise pristine sound.

20160215_seoulbeats_jaejoong_nox3The album ends surprisingly. The vocal performance on “Run Away” is “thicker,” if you will. There’s a deeper soul and a less polished sound than what pervades the album. It’s emotional for sure, but there’s an eeriness to Jaejoong’s tone, as if a teardrop is nestled right at the cusp where throat meets mouth. It’s perhaps his most vocally evocative performance. We all know him for his wails and the emotional hiccup part in parcel to reaching a sometimes overexaggerated emotional peak. However, “Run Away” is… there’s something there I can’t quite put my finger on. A sparse composition houses the ache in his vocal. As the album’s shortest song, it neither builds nor stagnates. It’s simply a song for the sake of singing something, getting something out of the soul.

And the way it ends…. Though many would find fault in the abruptness, that sudden break in music leaves a sting and throb in your heart, as if you’ve felt the hurt in his voice, the need, held on to him at the waist as he walked through his sorrow and put voice to it only to be left gripping air, as he proclaims in the chorus, “Why is it when you made me love you, you just run away?”

It’s as if I was left suspended and yearning, just as he yearned, like he was leaving his imprint on me and I couldn’t quite remove the ache in my chest. The lyrics are proof enough that this is exactly what Jaejoong intended, a feeling of longing, of reaching out and being left trapped in limbo:

I called for you even when you left
It’s the end of the road
Even though we broke up, even if I let you go all the way
Because I cared for you I couldn’t let you go

That seems to be the overall feeling of the album: waiting, never letting go. He couldn’t have had much time to prepare this gift for his fans, but even in what was possibly great haste, he gathers a collection of songs that are at moments bright, then gritty, then again unbearably tender. Lyrically, Jaejoong has mastered the art of telling the tales of a forlorn lover. But with each story he weaves, he also becomes bolder in his songwriting: songs like “All That Glitters” where he’s a man beaten down but refusing to be “crazy for long,” even as his lover continues to punish him; or “Breathing,” where he expresses just the act of exhalation is a beautiful moment between lovers; or even the snarl in “Good Luck,” where he basically gives someone the finger, telling them he may not be a saint, but at least his conscious is clear (“even though I’m a little dirty, my integrity looks pretty like I just came out of a sauna”).

20160215_seoulbeats_jaejoong_nox5As usual, Jaejoong is very closely involved with this project, serving as the album’s producer, vocal arranger, and having written nine of the twelve tracks and composed two. Surprisingly quite a few European composers and musicians had a hand in the album’s construction. Considering the musical arc of the album, it’s not hard to believe. There’s a decidedly more polished sound to the pop-rock Jaejoong favors than on his previous projects. While one could argue some of the rawness may have taken a dip, there’s nothing to suggest any of the fullness of his sound was lost, the sleeker surface of each track’s construction befitting the prettiness and even further the range of Jaejoong’s voice.

NO.X, without a doubt, is Jaejoong’s most mature work to date. There’s the right amount of ache, the perfect amount of grit, and all the vocal brilliance one expects from the passionate singer. I’d go even so far to say he’s never sounded better. He achieves a rounder sound with every album he releases, and this seems to be Jaejoong at his apex, his most vocally superior. Truly a gorgeous piece of music, almost elegant in execution. If this is Jaejoong’s musical trajectory, I’m excited to see what he has in store for us when he returns.

Album Rating: 4.5/5

(Images via CJeS Entertainment, JYJ3, YouTube)