Ever since the release of Miracles in December in 2013, EXO has made winter albums a tradition. The coldest months of the year are when fans want warm, vocal-heavy ballads to listen to when they curl up in their fluffiest blanket, and EXO never disappoints. This year, the group released Universe, an eight-track album that’s an impressive showcase of their vocal capabilities. Originally scheduled to be released just before Christmas, SM Entertainment announced they would postpone the album’s release following the death of SHINee’s Jonghyun. Universe was instead released the day after Christmas, giving fans something to listen to as they reflect on 2017 and prepare for the new year.
Unfortunately, both the album and the music video are missing Lay, most likely because they were recorded while China’s ban on Korean entertainment was still in place. Lay fans shouldn’t fret too much, though. He released “Goodbye Christmas,” a solo Christmas single, to help make up for his absence on Universe.
Living in EXO’s “Universe”
If there’s one thing fans have come to expect from EXO’s annual winter releases, it’s beautiful, heartwarming vocals. There’s an unspoken anticipation that whatever title track gets released, it will be the perfect background music while sipping a warm beverage next to a fireplace, watching snow fall outside. “Universe” meets all of these expectations, giving a little more flare to EXO’s usual winter releases with a rock ballad-style backtrack.
As with all of their past releases, Baekhyun, Chen, and D.O are the vocal anchors of the track. The other five members aren’t easily overshadowed, though. Each easily makes the most of their own parts, showcasing their own vocal talents whenever they can.
The lyrics are about what you’d expect from an EXO winter track. “Universe” tells the tale of someone who has lost a loved one and is dedicated to finding them. “I’ll search the universe until I find you again,” the chorus echoes, according to Kpop Viral’s English translation. “I won’t let go even the smallest memories. Our memories that are imprinted in the seasons will come back time and time again to call you.”
The biggest surprise in this year’s winter title, however, was how many lines Chanyeol got. EXO’s rap line as a whole hardly ever get more than a line or two per person each year, giving way to the vocal line. This year, however, Chanyeol’s deep voice was used to the group’s full advantage. Along with a few solo lines, he also provides backup vocals for Suho and Baekhyun during the bridge, providing the bass to their higher-pitched voices.
Giving Off That Coffee Shop Vibe
All of the teasers leading up to the release of “Universe” showed the members as baristas or holding mugs in cozy sweaters, so the clear cafe focus in the music video came as no surprise. The detailed shots of bubbles popping in latte foam or coffee beans being ground in slow motion matched with smooth up-close shots of each member, all dressed in various shades of brown, fit together perfectly with the rock ballad track.
Every scene is bathed in creamy earth tones, making the feel of the entire video warm and welcoming, despite the somewhat lonely lyrics. Each member is shown on his own, some drawing or viewing art while others are sitting at tables with cups of coffee, looking upset or depressed. Even when we first see all eight members together, they aren’t looking at or interacting with each other, keeping to themselves and looking sad.
During the bridge, however, Kai passes a cup of coffee in the iconic EXO mug to Baekhyun, which in turn metaphorically shows the end of their loneliness. The thick ropes tying Kai to a chair break and, the next time we see the group together, they’re all happily conversing among themselves. The song is one of loss, but it’s even more about accepting past faults and becoming dedicated to overcoming those.
Five Buttery-Smooth B-Sides
While Universe technically is an eight-track album, three of those tracks are various versions of the title track, leaving only five true B-sides. That’s still more than enough for a solid winter album, which EXO manages to provide every year.
“Been Through” is a chill mid-tempo track that starts off with an interesting modified guitar riff that serves as the base for the entire song. At points, members voices are simply layered over this one simple line, giving a sort of open, exposed feeling to the track before the drums and bass come in and fill out the sound. It’s the perfect type of track for when you’re looking to decompress after a long day. “Been Through” won’t affect your mood like a sad ballad might, but it’s not exactly a pump up jam either.
Following up such a chill song can be difficult, but “Stay” manages to do so perfectly. The track bumps up the tempo just a little more, hitting just the right beat to make you bop your head a little as you listen. Just a few hours after the album’s release, “Stay” was already looking like the fan favorite B-side from the album. This might be due to the fact that it’s the only track on the album with a rap section, letting Chanyeol and Sehun shine in their main roles. “Stay” is still a fairly mellow song in comparison to EXO’s usual high-energy releases, but the rock-style instrumentals help make the track feel exciting and fresh nonetheless.
Starting off with an acoustic guitar and D.O’s silky vocals, “Fall” is 100 percent your typical early-2000s boy band track. If you loved NSYNC’s “Gone” as much as I did, then this track will be right up your alley. The heavy synth background helps bring the track into the modern era, but it still feels very much like a throwback track that pays tribute to early-2000s ballad styles.
The old school trend continues with “Good Night,” which opens with some classic 90s keyboard. It’s yet another track that’s easy to listen to and showcases the true vocal talent of every EXO member. There’s an abundance of impressive pairings throughout the track, proving that they can fit their voices together in just about any combination possible and still sound great. That might seem like something that every group should be able to do, but very few groups actually take the opportunity to mix and match vocal pairings and groups within their own lineup. “Good Night” is truly a shining example of EXO’s intimate understanding of their own voices.
The album wraps up with “Lights Out,” a piano-heavy, modern-style ballad that really lets the group’s main vocalists go all-out. The simplicity of the track makes it feel like it’s shorter than it really is, leaving you craving more. It makes you want to go back and listen to everything again, making it the perfect way to end such a low-key album.
Curl Up and Enjoy
Universe is another addition to EXO’s growing collection of impressive, soothing winter albums. The coffee-themed teasers suit the album perfectly, as every track is easily something that you could hear being played at your local cafe. Reaffirmed vocal prowess aside, EXO has managed to create yet another album full of tracks that will become must-listen winter songs for years to come.
“Universe” Title Track Score: 9/10
Music Video Score: 9/10
Universe Album Score: 8.5/10