The word “ballad” is a descriptor that is simultaneously vague and specific. It’s a word that places the music of late night vaporwave whispers in the same category as an orchestral belter so it’s almost useless without a lot of other information. One would imagine that the statement “Onew released his first album, Voice, a collection of ballads” would have few expectations attached. 

The word “ballad” in the case of Voice is modified by its relation to Onew like the ephemeral quality of blue is realised when it comes with the sky. Onew’s distinctive vocals have been a lasting part of Shinee for many years and here have been given space to express his sound. It is dramatic, mature, and accomplished. The songs on this album sound closer to the solo work he’s done for OSTs and single releases than his Shinee catalogue.

The ballads of Voice, are produced with the aim of showcasing the expressiveness of Onew’s vocal abilities. This is mainly achieved with a restrained attitude towards instrumentation and production tricks. Onew sings with minimal background vocals on most of the tracks but with layered, cinematic orchestration that lends a sense of theatre to the entire record. It evokes the mood of a musical, particularly in tracks like the lead single “Blue”, “Under the Starlight”, and “Timepiece”.

“Blue” is one of the standout cuts not just because of its heady arrangement but because of the decision to release it as the title track of the album. A ballad that has no percussive elements, supporting vocals or climatic chorus is a risk as a lead single. That being said, the plaintive keys and string interludes combined with Onew’s gripping delivery of the emotive lyrics are more than strong enough to thrill a listener. The ease with which he switches between wistfully subdued and the wail of the high notes is incredible.

In this silent moment

I feel everything about me

I understand the joy of loneliness

Blue night

The sensitivity in the lyricism of the songs of Voice is one of the most touching elements of the record. While the songs superficially refer to a person or love affair, the themes mostly explore memory, longing, and identity as it relates to relationships. Missing a person, remembering a person, and what that means is not so much explained as sketched in fragments over the course of the record. The emotions have a dreamlike quality as they’re not unravelled from their complexity. The effect is poetic as much as it is moving.

Although many of the tracks on this album have a  sorrowful theme, there are lighter moments. “Sign” is reflective but the almost jaunty keys and strategic use of light percussion and brass is a bright addition to the melancholy. Onew’s performance of the emotional cuts is smooth enough to colour the sadness with a sweetness that hints at a hopeful future.

It is not an overly unhappy album by any means and would not serve well as a soundtrack to an emotional breakdown. It is softer and more resigned with an overwhelming tone of gentle romance. The nostalgic instrumentation in songs like “Shine On You” and “Illusion” bring a timeless quality to the album. The transformation of “Illusion” from piano-backed murmuring to a passionate spectacle is led by the introduction of drums and an electric guitar that gradually finds its voice in the melody. Guitars are used as sparingly as background harmonies but when they are employed they’re done well. “Shine On You” is supported by an acoustic rhythm guitar and a floating electric lead that seems ripped from an eighties hair ballad in the best way. 

The emotional intensity of the performance and lyrics, notwithstanding, the restraint in production shown throughout the album means it never becomes histrionic. It is a deft bit of artistry that allows the listener to stay engaged and not become weary of all the angst.

Longing is an apt theme as this album will be the last music released by the singer for the next two years. SM Entertainment announced Onew’s military enlistment date as 10 December. His enlistment means a prolonged hiatus for Shinee and his own career. Fans will no doubt be comforted by having access to music that shows Onew’s strengths to their fullest capabilities. Voice is good enough to leave listeners with a definite impression of his capability as an artist and a longing for his return to music.

Naver, Lyrics via Lyricskpop, YouTube. Images via SM Entertainment