Monday, June 13, 2016

album review: 'last year was complicated' by nick jonas

There's a part of me that wants to root for Nick Jonas... probably more than I should.

And no, it's not because of any extraneous Jonas Brothers connection - that group was around nearly a decade ago and made generally pretty forgettable music, and I sure as hell am not extending the same consideration to Joe Jonas in DNCE. For me, it's more linked to watching Nick Jonas evolve over the course of 2015 and showing measurable improvements. Sure, things may have started off bad with 'Jealous', but I genuinely liked 'Chains' and with songs like 'Good Thing' and 'Levels', he was only seeming to get better, with a reasonably sharp ear for songwriting and some decent, if formulaic production...

And then Justin Timberlake came back. And okay, while it hasn't been a full and complete comeback - just one single, and no sign of an album anywhere close - but it immediately placed Nick Jonas back into the context which to some extent I've been trying to deny for his sake. Because yeah, while it's arguably JT's worst hit in some time, it had more colour and life that Nick Jonas' 'Close' with Tove Lo didn't quite have, which was dour and heavy in a way I'm not sure flatters his voice or is all that fun. Let me put it another way, what I like to call the 'Mariah/Christina' comparison: Justin TImberlake makes pop music seem natural, whereas Nick Jonas makes it seem like work. And to give the public some credit, I think they get that, because Nick Jonas has struggled for real chart momentum, to really prove that he's worthy of the upper echelon of pop stars.

And hell, maybe he'll get there. His newest album is aptly titled Last Year Was Complicated, partially inspired by the breakup from a relationship that contextualized the majority of his self-titled record that was released in late 2014 and for some reason I never covered. So what did we get with this?

Honestly, I'm not really wild about this. I don't quite think this is a bad record, but Nick Jonas' Last Year Was Complicated definitely defines him as a b-lister in terms of modern pop/R&B. At least that was what I was going off of before I starting digging into the lyrics in more depth... and yeah, I'm not sure how much Nick Jonas is really all that complicated, because there are some real questions that need to be answered here.

So let's start with those lyrics and Nick Jonas himself, how he's contextualizing this album, because if one thing becomes abundantly clear throughout the course of this record, it's that he has no idea what he wants from girls going forward. And since this record isn't sequenced to reflect any sort of arc, it leads to plenty of tonal whiplash from track to track, from the drunken last night with his ex on 'Champagne Problems' to a song seeking greater vulnerability in his partner opposite Tove Lo on 'Close', which probably remains the best song here if only because she operates as the opposite perspective and provides some desperately needed balance against his projection - we'll come back to that - before we go back to Nick Jonas trying to find a way to let go on 'Chainsaw'. That song is the first that highlights a problem that's been consistent with Nick Jonas' writing since his self-titled album, a sense of scale. For an R&B crooner, he doesn't really have much lyrical subtlety, and given that he never really gets all that explicit, it means that some word choices seem over-the-top. 'Chainsaw' is the most obvious example, where he talks about taking the titular tool to the coach they made out in and smash all the china, but then there's also 'Voodoo', which is how he describes this girl's control on him, and 'Unhinged', where he describes his indecisiveness towards this girl and his lack of desire to commit as 'unhinged', which is synonymous with crazy! 

Granted, that song raises the second major lyrical issue on this record, which is that despite Nick Jonas not knowing he wants, he sure as hell is going to try and project onto everyone else, especially the girls he's hooking up with. I initially kind of liked 'Bacon' - mostly for the Ty Dolla $ign verse - until you realize that on the second verse he's quite literally comparing the girl in his bed to a sizzling hot piece of meat, which sounds like a bad College Humor reference from the late 2000s... and yet on the very next song 'Good Girls', he's wondering why all the good girls want to be bad? And I get the intention - hell, even he is saying it's not entirely their fault because they're just doing what guys want and what society is telling them - but it misses the real problem of horrible mixed signals, which Big Sean's guest verse and Nick Jonas keep exacerbating through all of their projection! And I don't remotely buy that Nick Jonas is only wanting good girls, because on 'The Difference' he says this girl has too broken way too much and he's going to fix her because she's too uptight. And yet on the next song 'Don't Make Me Choose' - a track I otherwise like for some solid atmosphere and a desire to make the relationship work with his career, he's got the nerve to say 'if you really love me, you would never judge me' - talk about a total hypocrite and asshole move here!

And look, I can see why on some level you might be tempted to give Nick Jonas a pass, if his delivery did a convincing job of conveying his inner torment or at least if he was going over the top... but he's not. Over-compressed vocal production and poor usage of filters aside, Nick Jonas as a singer is not particularly interesting. I mean he's not bad - he's got some swagger and charisma and he knows his vocal range and he can even sound earnest when he needs to - which is one of the reasons his attempts at alpha male posturing rings a little hollow to me, his delivery is nowhere as tight and driven as it is needs to be to pull this off. And much of this ties into the production, which really is not doing anyone any favours for how drab and monochromatic it can feel. When the bass isn't swamping out the mix like on 'Bacon' or the trap percussion isn't running rampant over everything, we have a selection of very tight, wiry low synths and bass matched against faded warbles that barely convey an interesting melody. Even 'Close', a song I like, really only picks up momentum thanks to the groove, not that  five note melody line. Now to his credit the grooves really are the saving grace to this album, like on the low acoustic strums driving 'Touch' or the flattened synth growing into the hook of 'The Difference' or the piano ballad tones on 'Unhinged' or the sandy bass groove on 'Under You', but they also highlight how inconsistent the production quality is, especially in the vocals. Backing vocals are often compressed or not at the same fidelity to blend well, the mix tries to fake having body with an abuse of reverb, and that's not counting the songs that are just clattering and shrill to the point of annoyance like 'Voodoo', which takes an Indian riff and some mildly interesting percussion and buries it beneath a skittering trap beat. And without more colour in the melody or strong hooks, this record becomes a real slog to get through, even if it is relatively short.

But really, the record can be best summarized by a sample that shows up on the last track 'Comfortable' of Allen Iverson's entire monologue to the press about skipping practice - rambling, kind of arrogant and dickish, and trying for depth that flat out isn't there, none of which is helped by Jonas interpreting the sample as describing how he treats girls leading up to finding the 'one'... you know, as practice, because their faith in him is very comfortable for him. If only that sort of shallow ego was held up by the rest of the music... except it's not, which is why I'm giving this a light 5/10. AS for recommendations... if you were a fan of Nick Jonas at some point, it might be worth something, but otherwise, there are better artists, and I'd probably skip it.

No comments:

Post a Comment