Ever since December of 2013, EXO has released a special winter album or single around the holidays. This is a smart move, as it lets the guys deliver a ballad title track during an appropriate time of the year. Ballads aren’t usually used as title tracks when it comes to massive idol groups, but with vocals as strong as EXO’s, it’s important to give this side of their music time to shine. Despite its somewhat-limiting holiday theme, their 2013 single Miracles In December is still one of the group’s best moments.
Apart from one line about a Christmas tree, For Life doesn’t feel all that rooted in the holidays. It has a more reflective tone, highlighted by its minimalist production that relies on a stark mix of piano and strings without even a touch of percussion. This makes the melody and vocal performance absolutely critical to the song’s success, and luckily the guys deliver. The verses move tentatively, giving off a pensive vibe with a tone just above a whisper. The chorus adds a bit of rhythm in the way that the guys deliver the lines, ending each one in an almost clipped, percussive manner. It’s an effective contrast, especially with the chorus’s final hushed refrain — a repetition of the song’s title that ends on a somewhat unexpected note. It even gets a bit rousing during For Life‘s climactic moment, where the piano resounds harder and the track threatens to move into full-on gospel mode. Part of me wishes it would have fully gone there, but ultimately I think pulling back was more appropriate for the tone EXO is going for.
Though For Life features no rap, it does incorporate all of the members (some much more than others). It compares nicely to their other winter singles, particularly Miracles In December. Last year’s Sing For You felt a little poppier and mainstream, but For Life is right in line with Korea’s emotional, ballad-heavy taste. It may not make listeners yearn for Christmas morning, but its simple, compelling melody should linger well into next year.