Following his mandatory military service and three years since his last solo release, Exo’s Chen is officially back with his third mini album, Last Scene. Known for his powerful, entrancing vocals, and affinity for ballads, Chen’s Last Scene comprises several elements prevalent in his previous releases, including vocal skill and prowess, emotive ballad tracks, and moving lyrics. 

However, compared to his earlier mini albums, Last Scene feels and sounds grander in scale. Perhaps it’s his maturation and growth both as an artist and in his own personal life throughout the past few years while out of the limelight. Or, maybe it’s his absence from the music scene that makes his return feel so tremendous. Either way, Chen also explores a wider variety of genres, tones, and textures than previously traversed in his earlier albums in Last Scene, but he also conveys the album’s emotions to an even greater and more powerful extent than before.

Much of the album falls strictly in the ballad genre, as expected from a vocalist of Chen’s caliber and based on his preferred style of singing. However, his vocal approach gives each track a sense of fullness, intrigue, and dynamism in their own right. Together, they tell a story of sorts, but what exactly that story is is left up to interpretation for the listener. 

The album’s first and titular track, “Last Scene,” kicks off the narrative emotionally and powerfully. A swelling ballad with heartbreaking lyrics, alluring strings, and piano-backed melodies, “Last Scene” is an emotional journey through holding onto fading memories of an ending relationship. Through his vocal tone and tenor, Chen conveys a sense of despair, longing and sadness. The lyrics add to how emotional and stirring the track is (“Can’t you see how this breaks me?/Behind your back, slowly fading I stand, holding broken memories”), but regardless of whether or not listeners understand their meaning, Chen’s singing transcends language by conveying the track’s emotions and meaning through his vocals alone. 

The next track, “Photograph,” follows a similar theme as “Last Scene,” again referencing retaining and reminiscing on memories, this time as they relate to childhood and innocence. Another acoustic piano-backed ballad, “Photograph” leans more tender and reserved compared to “Last Scene,” as Chen scales back the weight in his voice to float between his lower and higher registers. The result is a softer approach that creates an aura of nostalgia and wistfulness, suited to the track’s lyrics: 

Are you smiling brightly in those photos?

What would you have been back then?

You grew up and became an adult

I see a child in your weary heart

In the next two tracks, “Traveler” and “I Don’t Even Mind,” Chen breaks away from the ballad structure of the rest of the album — and the rest of his discography — to explore R&B influences in a way that he hasn’t previously as a soloist. Although EXO has plenty of R&B selections dating back to their early days, it’s refreshing to see Chen meet the neo-R&B genre with his vocals in a way that’s unexpected yet works so well. Both “Traveler” and “I Don’t Even Mind” are also the most upbeat songs on the album, both in vibe and lyrics — a nice change of pace between Last Scene’s heavier beginning and end. 

On “Traveler,” a laid back track with jazzy R&B instrumentals, Chen’s gentle vocal tone and smooth adlibs mesh seamlessly with the groovy rhythm and vibe. Compared to the previous two tracks, “Traveler” is more straightforward in its narrative and message, which is to take a break from the mundaneness and routine of daily life for a change of pace (much like what the song is to the album itself):

Still working everyday

The same, every day (Hmm)

Tired of daily routines

I’m trying to get out of it (Hmm)

The rhythm of the track itself even bobs up and down at the pace of an upbeat walk, with Chen’s encouraging vocals sprinkled throughout to keep the vibe going. “I Don’t Even Mind” follows the same kind of nonchalance, with vivid lyrics describing falling in love while trying to play it cool:

Under the moonlight, I dream of you

It doesn’t have to be beautiful

‘Cause I don’t even mind

Chen himself contributed to the lyrics, adding to the album’s personal narrative flair. Musically, the track is even more R&B-forward than “Traveler,” but again, Chen’s delicate yet dynamic vocals fit the style like a glove.

The final two tracks on Last Scene, “Reminisce” and “Your Shelter,” return to the ballad genre, as with the beginning of the album. For some artists, four ballads on a single six-track mini album can be a lot, if not unheard of. It can be difficult to differentiate that many tracks that are starkly in the same style of music. However, since ballads are Chen’s bread and butter and genre of choice, he knows how to own them by mixing up how he uses his vocals to portray certain emotions or create a specific atmosphere based on the story a song’s lyrics tell. 

“Reminisce” and “Your Shelter” are once again prime examples of this particular skill. “Reminisce” is one of the most dynamic tracks on the album, and gives Chen the chance to show off the highest end of his vocal range. Like in “Last Scene,” most of the track’s melodies are backed by strings, although electric guitar elements blend with Chen’s high notes at times to add an extra ounce of intrigue. Thematically, “Reminisce” sticks with the common narrative throughout the album of holding onto moments, only this time he encourages listeners to think of those memories in a positive light regardless of their ultimate outcome. Chen’s voice continues to go up in key all the way through the bridge, informing listeners of the track’s uplifting and hopeful message. 

“Your Shelter,” a reference to the album’s concept photos and art, has a fittingly warm feeling of visiting a loved one in their home. It’s also one of Last Scene’s more emotional selections, along with the title track, and is Chen’s way of saying that he is there for his fans, his loved ones, and maybe even himself — however listeners choose to interpret its meaning. “Your Shelter” also utilizes the image of a stairway as a metaphor for life: life has many stairs, seemingly never ending, but we continue to climb them and make it through some that are more difficult than others (“Will you be able to go up? You who have a lot of worries/At the end of the stairs/I rise again”). The track’s contemplative piano along with Chen’s melancholic approach to the vocals top off its introspective atmosphere. 

Despite three years away from the spotlight, Chen’s return with Last Scene couldn’t feel more grand and timely. For many artists, a third mini album is sometimes just that — another release in a greater catalog that doesn’t necessarily signal a larger meaning beyond the surface. However, Last Scene’s dynamic, carefully crafted collection of visceral stories and words of wisdom from an artist who has taken time to grow and live his life on his own terms is so much more than that: a new start that signals even more greatness yet to come. 

(YouTube. Lyrics via Genius [1][2][3][4][5]. Images via SM Entertainment.)