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.
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?
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.
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 Breathe, Blind 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.