Even if you’re not a fan, you’ve probably heard of TVXQ. The 16-year veteran group has stayed strong in the K-pop scene with a quiet, tenacious spirit, having survived two complete 2-year hiatuses during their career — the first being their transformation from a quintet to a duo, and the other being their army enlistment. Yet, both Yunho and Changmin have created a solid ground with significant influence in the industry, and continue to have a loyal fanbase.
With a total of ten Korean albums (and another ten Japanese ones) amongst countless other singles and collaborations, it’s no surprise that they’ve continued on in the K-Pop scene with a steady progression. Despite their wide-ranging growth, TVXQ has continued to stay true to their roots of being a dance-acapella group, consistently providing fans with memorable, soothing ballads and clean, sharp dance moves.
One example would be the balladic “She”. Keep Your Head Down was the first album TVXQ put out as a duo, and it had a lot to prove; “She” does exactly that. The song highlights the harmony between Yunho’s and Changmin’s voices, which has the stellar backdrop of a piano-and-synth-heavy instrumental that slowly builds up to an acme and provides the listeners with a dramatic, moving experience.
“She” loosely develops from a sound the group had previously explored in Mirotic with “You’re My Melody” and “Flower Lady”. I have always admired TVXQ’s capability to produce some ballads without making them like vanilla ice-cream. (Vanilla ice-cream is lovely, but it’s not exactly exciting.) These ballads, too, infuse subtle uptempo elements in the instrumental which come together with the members’ vocals to bring an intriguing and exciting appeal to it.
In fact, this balladic appeal is something they’ve constantly developed. From “Whatever They Say” in Tri-angle, and “On & On” in O-Jung.Ban.Hap to Catch Me‘s “Destiny”, Tense‘s “Beside” and Rise as God‘s “Everyday it Rains”, TVXQ has realised what they do exceptionally well and has continually given it attention.
However, it wouldn’t be doing justice to TVXQ’s discography if all we pay attention to is the ballads. After all, they have hardly shied away from any genre: metal, rock, EDM, pop, dance, R&B, jazz… you name it. Some may have an image of them usually playing it safe in terms of music, but other than Mirotic, TVXQ has never failed to experiment with genres.
“Million Men” is one such song. It is a funky, quirky song with unique synth and brass sounds that dominate the instrumental. Despite it being off their debut album, “Million Men” is a track produced with complexity. The lyrics juxtapose the quirkiness of the sound to bring across a serious message of not letting go of your values in order to gain material success.
Another standout b-side with a strong message is Keep Your Head Down‘s “Our Game”. “Our Game” features exciting, thumping beats of bass and cymbals, overlaid with simple but impressionable rap and haunting vocals that leaves the song lingering in your mind long after it is over:
The enemy tempts me every day; it wants me to crumble down.
But you can’t stop me, my fans are like sunflowers looking at the Sun.
The world is going to lie, (so) I don’t care if you deceive me.
I will shout out, undeterred.
Now I’m going to fly.
I’ve endured through all the moments;
time has taught me of pain.
But it was with Catch Me, Tense, and Rise As God that we got some of the most uptempo, captivating b-tracks TVXQ has put out.
A languid, sultry track, Catch Me‘s “My Life Has Started To Shine (Viva)” has a sassy and confident personality; it has lyrics that show off the self-assuredness that Yunho and Changmin hold, along with a clever arrangement of percussions and an odd but expert pairing with spaced-out, dubstep sounds. “Viva” is a contrast to the humble and down-to-earth personalities that the members hold in their daily lives and it offers a fresh perspective into their sturdy but controlled confidence.
On the same album is the show-stealing rock song “Getaway”. It is a song that gives Changmin the rightful avenue to belt out with a purpose, as opposed to some earlier songs in their discography where his high notes were inserted just because. Both Changmin and Yunho bring intense vocal performances on an instrumental track that consists of steady, heavy beats of electric guitar, drums, and percussions. “Getaway” is a gorgeous track with a production that does justice to both the instrumental and the well-defined vocals of both members.
Many would argue that the biggest change in TVXQ’s sound came after their split, with the release of Keep Your Head Down. As a matter of fact, though, it was with the release of their 10th-anniversary album, Tense, that TVXQ settled into their biggest genre shift to a Jazz-Pop-R&B combination to give us a distinct sound over the past 4 years or so. Songs like “Getaway” and “Our Game” are unique in K-Pop as a whole, but somewhat similar songs can be found in their older albums, such as “Dangerous Mind” or “Phantom”.
Tense‘s “Off-Road” is an R&B-heavy pop song that highlights the vocal ranges of the members, playing off the variety of higher and lower notes from both Yunho and Changmin. Their vocals sit on violin and piano notes that start off soft and sparse, only to build up to a complex production which includes percussions, drums, and brass instruments.
Before TVXQ settled into a more relaxed sound with New Chapter #1: The Chance of Love (TCOL) and New Chapter #2: The Truth of Love (TTOL), they gave us one of their most notable albums: Rise As God; an album that was a mature, creative and innovative piece of artistry. With tunes like “Vertigo”, “Dominus” and “Lucky Star” in one album, the album is inspiring and exciting from start to finish.
“Vertigo” is one of the best openings to a K-Pop album. The track is a restrained explosion of powerful energy. Delicate but crisp vocals and a complex composition deliver the song without becoming overbearingly ostentatious. The production brings on an air of mystery to the song, which is apt, considering the lyrics. In “Vertigo”, the production, lyrics, and resulting mood are in perfect harmony with each other.
Fast footsteps on a small alleyway, a shadow is chasing me.
Mixed up order, an unknown power, a silent chaser.
It’s very secretive, the scent is sweet, the face is blurry but familiar.
As my memories get tangled in my dreams, I toss and turn all night.
On the other hand, “Dominus” is uncomplicated in its delivery but leaves a strong impact on the listener regardless. It has a light neo-soul influence, relying mostly on dense layers of vocals and harmonies. “Dominus” is a perfect example of how Yunho and Changmin have come to settle into their voices and have learnt how to build off each other to create a flawless vocal harmony.
“Lucky Star” is a song that is larger than life; its point lyrics (“Can’t you see? I’m your lucky star.”) are emphasised by creating a spatial backing. Even though it has a rock influence with pulsing drum beats and an addictive electric guitar riff, it spaces these elements out to create a track that is just right. Not too overwhelming, but not underwhelming either. A spacious choral instrumental causes the message to reverberate throughout the song, making it unforgettable. “Lucky Star” is balanced in its execution, and is by far one of TVXQ’s best b-sides to date.
Although TVXQ has mellowed out their sound with the post-army New Chapter series, it does not mean that their discography has gotten any less engaging. They’ve grown, so have their fans, and as have modern trends.
TCOL‘s “Love Line” is evidently a hit or miss amongst listeners, but I found it to be a hit. Although it is relatively sparse, it’s refreshing in its simple layering of claps and acoustic guitar, with only the light-hearted harmony of Yunho’s and Changmin’s subdued yet sweet vocals. Rather than being bland, it’s surprisingly perky and bubbly to listen to.
“Bounce” — also from TCOL — is another track that deserves a shout-out.
No need to be self-conscious,
Burn it up with this rhythm that captures your heart.
Hey lady, till the night is over,
Scream a little louder, like you’re crazy,
“I just wanna do my thing.”
Encouraging you to let go of your reservations and judgements, “Bounce” is a funky, buoyant track that makes you want to get up and dance, just like lyrics suggest. The tune is fiery and playful, and the staccato hooks are a total attention-grabber.
However, perhaps the perfect summary of TVXQ’s current sound would be TTOL‘s “Sooner Than Later”. The instrumentation is groovy, with an old-school feel to it, akin to a New Wave pop-oriented genre. Nonetheless, with a funk-EDM-influenced instrumental, what makes the track engaging is the modernisation done to it. Not only does it feature The Quiett’s breezy and informal rap, but it also mixes in electronic elements that you would recognise in music trends nowadays.
We all know TVXQ for their hits: “Mirotic”, “Keep Your Head Down”, “Something”, amongst many others. Be that as it may, the K-pop act actually has many more impressionable tracks hidden in their discography, with a little something for everyone. It would be right to say that SM has not always explored their full potential with a number of their albums, but their latest albums have been nothing short of matureness, creativeness and cohesiveness. Their growth as artists and individuals shows across their work, and they’ve managed to create a sound that is distinct to them and their reigning vocal and song-writing capabilities.