[review/kpop] S.M. The Ballad’s “Breath”

In 2014, S.M. The Ballad returned to the music scene. In contrast to the unit’s debut, 2014 S.M. The Ballad included women and released in three languages simultaneously (applause please, seriously impressed with S.M. gunning for the entire Asian market and not prioritizing Korea). The interesting upshot of releasing one song in three different languages is that I get to compare and lampoon everyone who is not Jonghyun. Just kidding, of course.

As this is a SHINee-centered blog, I will be primarily focusing on Jonghyun’s contribution to S.M. The Ballad, but I will briefly discuss all of the other singers and singles within this mini-album. I will also discuss the live joint recital videos that SM has posted on its YouTube channel.



SHINee’s Jonghyun and SNSD’s Taeyeon sing the Korean version, and their success is ambiguous. First of all, Breath by itself is not a memorable ballad, just another sappy mix of a piano motive, synthetic strings and teardrop beats. Both Jonghyun and Taeyeon, while sounding controlled, are at times tight and thin-sounding; as Bilbo Baggins describes, it feels like “butter scraped over too much bread.” In the beginning, Taeyeon does have some beautiful moments in her lower register, but her octave duets with Jonghyun feel uncomfortable, sharp while Jonghyun is broad and relaxed. I wonder if they are truly singing a duet, or whether they are merely matching times. There is no real interaction between their singing, and no building off each other. Overall, I believe they are mismatched as a pair; in terms of aural match, Taeyeon and Onew would have been better. Overall, Jonghyun and Taeyeon’s version is not lead vocal material.

The live Korean version is polished and I would say vocal quality is a bit better as they moderate the “tightness” of their voices. Nonetheless, Taeyeon sings behind the beat, which is irritating. Some people will hate me for saying this, but while Taeyeon does look to the side, she does not look Jonghyun in the eyes. Jonghyun is always more fully turned towards her while Taeyeon’s body is facing forward and her head tilted slightly up and to the side– not actually facing Jonghyun (see Exhibit A). I think Taeyeon is perhaps more suited to being a solo singer as she seems uncomfortable or unwilling to interact with her partner. I listened to the recording before I watched the joint recital live, and it amazes me that even in the recording I could pick up their discord and mismatch as duet partners.

Exhibit A: Jonghyun & Taeyeon

Exhibit A: Jonghyun & Taeyeon

I also checked the Music Core performance, and it is the same, Jonghyun and Taeyeon have very little eye contact and Taeyeon is always looking askance or closing her eyes (Exhibit B). This is especially disappointing because Jonghyun and Taeyeon have probably known each other for a while, and they are professionals. As with professional actors in kissing scenes, while they may be initially nervous, they put on the mindset “it’s just a job” and pull it off without a hitch. Jonghyun and Taeyeon should be thinking along these same exact lines: look each other in the eyes! How can you duet successfully without the most critical communication?

Exhibit B: Jonghyun & Taeyeon

Exhibit B: Jonghyun & Taeyeon

Next up is TVXQ’s Changmin and f(x)’s Krystal who sing in Japanese. Changmin immediately feels quite different from Jonghyun as he cannot emote happy as well nor can he sound as broad; for some reason, he sings this song from high in his throat. Krystal is awkward in Japanese, but her voice reminds me more of Jonghyun, actually. Surprisingly, in this rendition, Changmin is the sharp one, and Krystal is, for a few times at least, the broad and relaxed voice. Nonetheless, the parts where they are both tight are incredibly uncomfortable to listen to, like nails scratched across the board. Largely because of this, the Japanese version is inferior to the Korean version.

Lastly, EXO’s Chen and Zhang Li Yin sing the Chinese version. Chen is slowly plodding along to good Chinese pronunciation; his accent is still noticeably thick. Yet, he shows good dynamic range and I think with a few more years of performance and life experience under his belt, he will be able to reproduce a large emotional range like his sunbae, Jonghyun. Zhang Li Yin is absolutely killing it; she is broad and relaxed (unlike Taeyeon) but sure of what she is singing (unlike Krystal). Chen and Li Yin’s duet is the best out of the three versions, as they moderate their voices to match each other– there is interaction, but the voices are different enough to provide some friction. Therefore, in contrast to the other versions, I hear the build-up to the climax much more strongly. There is something to be said for a Chinese woman’s voice– from hearing myriad kpop groups, many Korean girls have a clear but sometimes thin voice, like Taeyeon or her group-mate Jessica. However, in China, it is more common to hear the fuller but clear type of singing that Li Yin has.

The live Chinese version is a little disappointing on Chen’s side as he is more subdued and flat in some points. Li Yin, however, continues to kill it. As in the recording, their voices complement each other incredibly well; this is in part because Li Yin and Chen look at each so often, unlike the other live duets in the joint recital (see Exhibit C below). Seems silly to some, but even in classical music when playing in chamber music groups, it is imperative to occasionally have eye contact with each player. Having eye contact makes it much easier to “feed off their energy” and have a much more “together” and subsequently, nuanced performance.

Exhibit C: Chen & Li Yin

Exhibit C: Chen & Li Yin

The ideal track would be Jonghyun singing in Korean and Li Yin in Chinese put together. Sadly, it does not exist, so overall, I must say Chen and Zhang Li Yin’s Breath was the best recording. A duet not only needs good individual singers, but they need to be able to work together well.

Some notes about the music video– Changmin is way too old to be a student, why didn’t they used fresh-faced Chen instead? Someone also get Chen out of that black suit because he looks like a stick. Can someone also hit Jonghyun whenever he decides to strut out like a delinquent? He’s been using that walk for a few years, SHINee World is ready for something else now, please.

A Day Without You

Quite possibly one of my favorite instrumentals of the entire year. It is a fun and light piece for Jonghyun and Chen, but I am disappointed in Jonghyun’s falsetto in the chorus– instead of being light and breathy, it is sharp. The second time around, Chen’s voice (not falsetto) is added to the mix but it fails to take the perceived sharpness out of Jonghyun.

The bridge is well-done, as you can hear the give-and-take between Jonghyun and Chen. Chen actually does a better job as Jonghyun’s (strained) voice comes mostly from his throat (if he isn’t careful, he may get growths on his cords like Onew). Chen also manages to hold his own throughout the song, most notably in the first verse, singing after Jonghyun. I am always impressed after hearing Chen, and I really look forward to his career as a singer.

Jonghyun sings noticeably better in the live version and his vocalizations are great, where his chorus falsetto is covered by the live band (praise the lord). However, both Jonghyun and Chen wobble here and there, Chen wobbling a bit more, and in the climax, he forgets to relax and sing from the diaphragm. However, their climax starting at 2.46s and Chen’s high vocalization is even better than the recording.


Super Junior’s Yesung sings the Korean version of Blind. Like BreatheBlind is an unmemorable ballad. I understand the draw of a voice like Yesung’s– slightly gravelly and low– though I admit it is not to my taste. Yesung has a nasty habit of cutting off his notes before the phrasing naturally ends. An analogy: he reaches the peak of a mountain but then trips and tumbles all the way down to the bottom before he can plant his flag. It is a shame, because Yesung is a powerful singer and could have probably fronted a rock band if given the opportunity.

Super Junior M’s Zhoumi sings the Chinese version. He is irritating from the get-go as he approaches all of the lower notes from the top and slides down to the right pitch; he amends this as he progresses in the song. Zhoumi’s voice reminds me of Yesung’s powerful voice, though without the gravelly sound. Comparing the Chinese version with the Korean, I think Zhoumi edges Yesung out by a bit as Zhoumi correctly completes phrases and minimizes his abruptness.

Zhoumi’s live Blind shows that his lower register is weaker than expected as he almost reverts to speaking in some parts. However, Zhoumi is spot-on in his chorus and highly reminds me of Zhang Li Yin; in fact, they have very common Chinese singing voices, though they are styles that are rarer in Korea.

Set Me Free

Taeyeon sings the plaintive Set Me Free, the only single by a female singer in the mini. In a good way, it reminds me a bit of Loveholic’s Sylvia. Nonetheless, it exposes the fact that her lower register is weak, as sometimes she almost lapses into speaking, which does explain why she gets so sharp so quickly in Breath.

In the live version, the chorus is quite as good as the recording, a relief since it is the best part of the song. However, Taeyeon starts off-key and mumbling, improving slightly as she heads into the second verse. Though Taeyeon does have some beautiful moments, I still struggle to see Taeyeon (and also Krystal) as a lead vocal.

Zhang Li Yin swoops in again being a boss in the Chinese version Set Me Free, though I do prefer Taeyeon’s chorus.

When I Was… When U Were…

Chen returns for another duet, this time with Krystal. Chen and Krystal match a lot better than Krystal and Changmin, which makes me wonder– perhaps Chen is just great at duetting and able to adapt his voice to his partner. All of the Chen duets I have listened to so far have had at least good chemistry between singers.

In the live version, Krystal does have a glowing lower register but she sings slightly off-key from Chen more than a few times and seems not to know how to control her vibrato well. Moreover, she seems to not be listening to Chen as much as he is listening to her, and she frequently does not match or respond to him. I heard Chen’s true lower register at 1.57s for the first time, and it is amazing. Yet, like Jonghyun, Chen typically is given the higher parts, so we rarely hear it– excuse me while I bawl in the corner because it took Jonghyun about five years since debut to get lower parts.


In terms of sheer vocal firepower, the first iteration of S.M. The Ballad was far more impressive with Hot Times. 2014 S.M. The Ballad is more subtle and less about the flashy high notes, though there are more than a few. Taeyeon and Changmin hand in the most disappointing performances, Chen the most promising, and Zhang Li Yin simply the best. Jonghyun and the rest earn an “eh.” While a solid effort by singers at the top of the kpop game, great voices alone cannot propel an album to success. Decidedly, the talent greatly outstrips the song quality. Perhaps the singers themselves have recognized this: for though the album tries to hit the artsy, plaintive tone, sometimes all I hear is autopilot.


7 thoughts on “[review/kpop] S.M. The Ballad’s “Breath”

  1. Hmm, I think that with as few duets as SM ever releases, it’s easy for me to be blindsided more by what I hear and think of each singer individually rather than their interaction as a duet, and thus I rated the Korean version as best. Liyin’s voice is clearly different as a Chinese singer, that’s obvious, so I feel that oftentimes it clashes too much with I expect from the standard Kpop ballad sound, which is partially why the Chinese version did not rank first for me. But Chen and Liyin were great live when I saw them, though! :3

    I totally agree with your music video comments. I almost second guessed myself as to whether that was Changmin. -_-U I was confused, like, did they get someone who just looks like Changmin? :P And XD I never noticed Jonghyun’s strut until you mentioned it. But it’s just so…appropriate to his nature. XD Laughing more than anything at this now.

    I also think that for me, with only some of the most basic musical background, that’s as much as it will allow me to hear, because I can’t seem to hear some of these notable details that you mention. T.T (Not gonna lie, I’m almost jealous and disappointed that I didn’t train further in musical education. By the time I stopped, my ears could still barely tell the difference between sharp and flat notes without a tuner.) Additionally, I often find that I’m also unable to apply the same knowledge I have of instrumental music to vocal music.

    Lol “Jonghyun and the rest.” That’s only Krystal. XD And did you know Liyin sang the Chinese version of Set Me Free? She definitely handles her low notes better than Taeyeon does, that’s for sure. :P Full, clear notes whereas Taeyeon is struggling to rasp them out.

    • embarrassing! I posted a sentence about Li Yin’s “Set Me Free”. lol, “the rest” would also include Yesung and Zhoumi.

      Ah, the reason why I place higher value on teamwork over individual is because of my specific training as a musician; I’m always the first to comment on the teamwork and my piano teacher was like “because you’ve been taught by me” (she always directed my chamber music groups). I strongly believe it’s together or broke. Sure, you may have a kickass solo, but it’s still going to sound bad if you’re out of sync with your supporting fellow musicians. In fact, it makes you look like a tool, trying to be all virtuoso without caring about your colleagues. (Cough, Taeyeon can’t be a tool, because she’s not a virtuoso.. burn!!!!!!!).

      This semester I took a performing seminar and listened to so many singers, so I am an expert now at picking out generally-termed things to say about vocalists!

      Thanks for reading :)

      • Ohhh snap, my turn to be embarrassed, haha. XD Since you only mentioned the duet singers, I automatically forgot about Yesung and Zhou Mi. OTL

        Yes, that’s right, I completely agree, especially because I was in a wind ensemble in high school, so everything was about coordination and teamwork and stuff. The highest seat I ever had was first flute, second chair, and I was never competitive, so my talent did not have a potential to develop. Plus, I never actually ‘trained,’ so to speak. It was just a hobby then. But I can completely understand the need for teamwork; I just can’t pick it out. :S

        Ahhh, so jealous! XD I just graduated, so I won’t easily be able to take classes if I wanted since I’ll be looking for work. But that’s so cool. :P I wanna be able to do that too!

  2. Hi there. Thanks for this review. Just wanted to boast about Chen’s voice a bit haha. He’s the best in EXO in terms of range and consistency. He won the vocal line battle game on their TV show here: http://youtu.be/kkB3uTCPpk4?t=12m26s (till 17:15)
    I also wondered if what you think of this (very detailed but bit harsh considering he only debuted two yrs ago) review of Chen’s voice on k pop vocal analysis here: http://kpopvocalanalysis.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/exos-chen-kim-jongdae-vocal-analysis-newly-updated/
    Thanks again for this review. I also think ZLY was the best overall. I just can’t get enough of her voice.

    • yup, I saw that YouTube clip. I kind of went on an EXO tear when I needed to work (and thus I procrastinated instead).

      hmm.. the danger about that blog is you can get bogged down by all of the technical terms in there and think, wow, she absolutely knows what she talking about. In my own opinion, I think she gave a fair assessment of his vocal technique, but honestly, by the nature of her review, she focuses heavily on raw technique and does not consider interpretation as much. I think a prime example would be Britney Spears– not much technique, but quite a bit of interpretation, yet I would say she is a great vocalist for having such manipulation of her voice, though not technically. Thus, while the reviewer does describe Chen’s technical aspects accurately, I’m not convinced of her overall assessment. It’s my personal opinion when you reach a certain level, technical details are not as important and interpretation is the main force you need to reckon with.

      Mostly when reading these sorts of technical reviews, I would just go with the mindset “whatever” because in the end, YOU’RE the one listening to Chen or whoever it is you like. If you like them, then vocal analyses (including my own) be damned, you go ahead and show your support :P!

      Thanks for reading ^^~

  3. Pingback: top 15 kpop / jpop tracks of 2014 | ilam

  4. For Set Me Free piece. I don’t not agree with you.
    Taeyeon sang her interpretation of this piece which is centered on sadness, pain, and the need to be free. Thus her entire vocal style is airy for exactly this purpose. The low notes you say she mumbled and almost spoken was done using the airy style and it was done artistically which she masterfully presented throughout the entire piece with the chorus as the direct example in which you liked so much.

    Zhang Li Yin’s interpreted and sang differently than Taeyeon. I’m Chinese so I read the lyrics. It is slightly different than the Korean ones. Examples: her low notes she used resonance voice but when she sing “Ai” (Love) she changed to airy tone which is in sharp contrast. After that word, she switched back to resonance voice. The first 3 words of the last line before the 1st chorus line, she switch back to airy while the last two words were resonance again.

    She switches between airy style and full resonance throughout the chorus which is probably why you prefer Taeyeon’s chorus.

    Her interpretation of the music was simple: softer in the beginning than getting stronger through the second set and second chorus. But my main problem was the sharp switching between airy style and resonance style. It broke the music and the lyrics into two parts and not cleanly in 2 parts but rather 2 parts mashed together in multiple places. It was very uncomfortable for my ear. She interpreted this piece badly.

    Taeyeon should deserve a praise here for her interpretation Set Me Free. Her voice gave out the feeling of painfully wanting to be free and fly away during the chorus line while matching sadness and pain with the other lines. And all within one constant airy style that never broke the mood or the pace of the song.

    To me, Taeyeon presented true skill of a master artist that understood the song and matched her singing style with it.

    Remember a song (especially ballads) is more than just music and notes, it is also the words, the emotions behind the words, and the interpretation style of the artist singing the words.

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