It’s been eleven long months. Nearly a full rotation of the Earth around the sun, and now we find ourselves once more in a position to view the brightest exoplanet in our galaxy. Yes, Exo has returned with a full length album, Exodus, and we’ve got a full length review to match.
The real question is not whether Exodus will be a success. For a leviathan like Exo, a certain level of success is nearly guaranteed. The real question is what Exo’s narrative will be. How will history remember them, and, more specifically, this album? Is Exodus the product of a group rising from the ashes of last year’s internal turmoil, stronger than ever? Or maybe Exodus will be seen as the inevitable dip in form, as sinking under the intense weight of expectations? Or, perhaps Exo has achieved nothing more or less than status quo with their new album? So which is it?
Coming in, a lot of the focus has been on how Exo will handle their transition from two groups of six to a standard ten-member lineup. We used the phrase “Exodus” back in October to describe the frightening prospect of so many members filing lawsuit, Kris and Luhan’s exit forever changing the group. Which makes Exo’s choice of album titles outrageous – do they really want to remind their fans of this? Or is this an attempt to rebrand history, to create their own story?
Either way, the truth is, Exo has never looked as unified and as natural as they do in the music video for “Call Me Baby.” Gone are the tedious shifts between subgroups. No one has to pretend to throw the camera to his counterparts to switch between Exo-K and Exo-M (there’s still plenty of swing shots, don’t you worry). Each member gets time in the spotlight, or as much as can be expected with a ten-member group. And the continuous line changes keep it feeling fresh. Although the separation of Exo-K and Exo-M made for a brilliant business model, and is probably responsible for some of their current success, I much prefer the new, unified look. Honestly, “Call Me Baby” is the first time I’ve understood Exo as a single entity.
As for the music video, a lot of fans are mistakenly calling the men of Exo greasers. There are cars here, yes, and a garage or empty warehouse, but none of them seems much concerned with power tools or changing oil. Considered as an extension of their previous music videos, I can’t help but imagine Exo as the rich heirs of property magnates, flying around the world to review empty warehouses for their daddies and getting Lamborghinis for every birthday. That isn’t meant as a negative critique. This is a video most concerned with image, with presenting Exo as stars worthy of idolatry. And it absolutely succeeds. The cars, the slick dance moves, and an inspired (mostly) wardrobe position Exo as the stars which we know them to be.
Speaking of “Call Me Baby” (which thank goodness was not called “Call Me Daddy” as early leaks suggested), Exo has done a yeoman’s job of creating and maintaining a particular sound which they can call their own. “Growl” had it. “Overdose” definitely had it. And now “Call Me Baby” can only be described as a quintessentially Exo song. That’s one of the marks of a true star, having an identifiable style. Exo’s is a bit nasally, a bit metallic even, but it’s not without a certain charm. “Call Me Baby” is a great single, only held back by a hook that’s just a tad too quick to enjoy singing along.
Second on the album, “Transformer” aims for a slightly more dangerous sound, a hardness popular among many boy groups, and it mostly succeeds. The instrumental dips and rises keep the song fun, even if the lyrics are a bit basic. My biggest concern with “Transformer” is honestly that it sounds like it could have been produced by any number of Kpop groups out there. It lacks exactly what “Call Me Baby” has. It lacks Exo’s style.
“What If” slows Exodus down with a beautiful, old-school R&B song. After two days of listening to this album on repeat, “What If” is a surprising front-runner for my favorite song. Full disclosure, I’m a sucker for R&B. But this is probably the best display of Exo’s vocal talent. If you care for R&B, this song is a must for your slow-jam playlist.
Next up is “Playboy,” which absolutely needs to be Exo’s second single. It has their signature sound, and the music video concept writes itself. What I like most about this song is that it successfully builds upon its own foundation. The first time I heard the refrain, I didn’t know how to understand it, categorize it, intuit it. But “Playboy” builds itself up, it becomes larger each time the refrain is repeated until, by the third refrain, the song’s end feels satisfying, feels well-deserved, feels right.
“My Answer” is the obligatory ballad of the album. And, no bones about it, it’s not going to blow you away. Soft vocals accompanied by piano make for a nice song, a sweet song even, and necessary for the flow of the album as a whole. But I usually forget I’m listening at this point. “My Answer” has a background-music quality to it that will either completely interrupt your playlist vibes, or drift through your ears passively, requiring minimal attention be paid.
Lucky number seven is “El Dorado,” though I don’t think Exo strikes gold on this one. It’s a catchy song, no doubt, but it puts Exo just a shade outside their comfortable range. Which is probably why the vocals feel over-produced at times.
“Beautiful” is not the most memorable song. I’ve listened to it many times with the full album on repeat without it leaving much of an impression. It’s a song that requires you to really slow down and listen on an album that’s full of bangers. The hypnotic quality of the snaps that never fade, never end, just might relegate this one to background music, regardless of the quite good refrain.
Ninth, and we’re getting deep into the rotation here, is “Hurt.” This is one last attempt to raise the tempo after “Beautiful” did such a good job hypnotizing us. And, surprisingly, it works. There’s a reason Kpop favors the short album. Most groups lose steam after six songs and call it quits. But Exo show they can go the distance with “Hurt.” I can’t recommend the needless dubstep dance break, but the rest of the song is enjoyable, start to finish.
And then, the cleanup. “Lady Luck,” as the last song of the album, has one very important job: provide closure. The traditional chorus provides just the right amount intensity to start, before softening to an emotional appeal. I applaud the tempo, a nice mid-range that is neither fast nor slow, and that allows Exo to end their album on neither a high note nor low note. It’s that middle area that Goldilocks would have found to be just right.
Which brings us back to the original question: how will history remember Exodus? What is the story of this album? As far as I’m concerned, and I mean this as a compliment, Exodus maintains the status quo. Exo are a group on top of their game. I came in with reservations, looking for signs of weakness following recent events. But Exo appear stronger and, strangely, more unified than ever. It’s not a perfect album. But Exo have proven something important here. They’ve proven they have staying power. So farewell, dear reader, until after the next Spring Equinox when we’ll surely be here again.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.