Monday, April 6, 2015

album review: 'goon' by tobias jesso jr.

Before we begin, let's talk a little bit about one of the most common song templates in music: the piano ballad. Long held as one of the most basic but most versatile set-ups in the industry, it's a formula that's almost classic, and can be played in many different forms. The crowning era of this - as it was for many singer-songwriters - was the 70s, where the piano could be soft and intimate or clattering and loud, aggressive or graceful. As a pianist myself - albeit one without much subtlety, I can admit - there's a certain affinity I have to very good piano ballads for their ability to craft intricate melody with every note.

But it seems as time has past, the piano ballads that get popular these days are more maudlin and subdued, where our singer-songwriter goes to the piano because he wants to evoke an atmosphere of downbeat simplicity and nothing else. This really came to a head in the first half of 2013, where we were deluged with piano ballads that weren't bad, but rarely had the songwriting heft to really grip me - sure, I like sad love and breakup songs as much as anyone, but there's more to the formula and stories that could have been told beyond that. And it can fall along a similar line of the opinion I tend to hold of 'white guys with acoustic guitars' - if you can't elevate the bare minimum into something of substance or emotive weight beyond the very most basics, it's hard for me to connect with it, simply because I've seen so much of it before.

This is one of the big reasons I've been leery about checking out the debut album from Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. Originally starting as a bassist in LA for several years, Jesso eventually moved back to Vancouver and after a particularly rough breakup and family difficulties, he started working on this album. From there Jesso was able to leverage some pretty interesting connections - JR White formerly of the duo Girls, Ariel Rechtshaid, John Collins of the New Pornographers, and most interestingly for me, Pat Carney of The Black Keys. He also managed to enlist help from one of the sisters from HAIM, and wow, it seemed like this guy hit the lottery when it comes to critically beloved friends in indie rock. And from everything I had heard going in, I wasn't going to be getting the hyper-literate and intricate songs of Josh Tillman, but something simpler and more emotive. And that can work - Perfume Genius proved that on his earlier albums - so I decided to give Tobias Jesso Jr. a chance with his debut album Goon - how is it?

Well, I have to say, I'm underwhelmed. Actually, that's probably being polite - for an album that's gotten comparisons to Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and even Paul McCartney's, Tobias Jesso Jr.'s Goon plays in the bush league at best, an emotionally underweight trifle that tries to run on simplicity and instead runs on fumes. If stripping things down to the piano ballad is all about making every single element of the song work at its best in lyrics, delivery, and composition, the closest this record gets to passable is in the instrumentation and production. It's not even an interesting failure or curiosity of a record, just painfully basic and unimpressive.

So admittedly thosee are some pretty harsh accusations, so before I get to those, let's talk about the one element that mostly works - the instrumentation and production. I'll say this for Jesso, there can be a certain charm to sticking to the basics, and it's clear he does have a knack for some decent melodic hooks. Sure, we're not getting extensive classical digressions or moments that show off mind-blowing talent, but simplicity can work to your favour if you add enough. And there are moments where Jesso really does, even if it does feel a little like he's building off of the framework of the past, most egregiously on the opening track 'Can't Stop Thinking About You' which does share a similar chord pattern to the old Cheers theme song. But going past that, there were elements of the production and instrumentation I liked - even though the lyrics completely sink the song 'How Could You Babe', it had a good framework in the gentle organ tones; the slightly faded string accents on 'Can We Still Be Friends', the bright bounciness of 'For You' with slightly more prominet drums, and the slightly more aggressive and crisp 'Crocodile Tears' with the distant echo of the percussion. On the other hand, the horns on the outro of 'Hollywood' are some of the most unflattering and limp attempts at that sort of ending I've heard in a long time, and while I get the song focused on failed LA dreams, there's a difference between wistful and lonely and sputtering incompetence.

And on that note, we might as well talk about lyrics and themes. Now I've already said that the songwriting is pretty thin - you get troubled relationship songs, a lot of heartbreak and autobiography, and it's all sketched so broad with so little detail that it could easily be applied to anyone. We're not so much getting character vignettes as slices of personalized emotion that can relate to everyone. I'd say that, but the more I listened through this album, the more the lyrics started to come across as a little whiny and insufferable. And it starts early, where Jesso admits he treated the girl badly which led to the break-up, and yet since it's been so long he's scared to apologize... uh, why? Doesn't time tend to mean old hurts fade away, wouldn't this be a good thing if you're pleading to come back? Or go to the next song, where it seems like the breakup is handled maturely... until she finds a new guy, potentially the love of her life, and Jesso plays it like a huge betrayal, plainly not over all of it. Or the incessant and overwrought whining of 'Without You', or the pleas for forgiveness that ring hollow on 'Bad Words', or the demands for her to just be honest and dump him already on 'Tell The Truth'. It rings as so petty and immature, and it makes songs that actually do have a little more sense like the forgiveness on 'Can We Still be Friends' feel like exceptions instead of the rule. Now you could argue that this sort of relationship behaviour is intentional, creating a flawed protagonist that we can respect for his fragile humanity, perhaps evidenced by Jesso calling the album Goon. Hell, there are fragments of that on 'For You', where it seems like our narrator will be there when times are good and little else, or on 'Crocodile Tears', where he's just going through the motions in a relationship and needs to end it. But there's a few problems with that conclusion, and it's mostly linked to the writing. The first issue is simple enough: when your writing is so bare-bones and lacking in additional detail, not to mention drenched in cliched topics and execution, there's rarely enough additional context to explain why we should empathize with our protagonist, or why his behavior is justifiable. Sure, I get his feelings, but the delivery is often so earnest and yearning that we as the audience are supposed to empathize - and it's hard for me to do that when he can come across like he does on this album.

And this second issue comes down to the performance, because if you go back to the golden era of singer-songwriters, the guys who could write simple songs and touch hearts, it came down to performance. You could buy the weary sadness in McCartney's voice on songs like 'Yesterday' - what about Tobias Jesso? Well, I admit this comes to personal taste... but I get nothing from this guy. I get there's a purpose to understatement and keeping things subtle, but when you pair it with songwriting and compositions that are so basic, there needs to be something about the delivery that stands out, and nothing does to me. And the frustrating thing is that I don't doubt his emotions are authentic, but his thin croon reminds me less of Nilsson or Newman or McCartney and more of when John Travolta tried to play to the teen idol crowd in the mid-70s. His voice audibly cracks when he stretches it to bring more passion, his dramatic range feels forced at best, and masking the flaws behind multi-tracking and filters don't help and only further distance us from him. And it's not flaws that enrich the performance either - going back to Perfume Genius, the vocal flaws and breaks were more audible, but there was a core of strength and potency to his delivery that Tobias Jesso Jr. just does not have. What's worse is that there's not the sort of complicated emotive delivery that you need to back up tracks with self-aware flawed narrators that you'll find with stronger singer-songwriters like Josh Tillman or James McMurtry or Bill Callahan. It feels less organically flawed and more amateurishly unpolished, something I could hear in any lounge or piano bar in the country.

So in short, I don't think this album is bad - hell, I completely get its appeal. If you're a fan of Tobias Jesso Jr.'s croon and you think his penchant for simple songs is charming, you'll like this album. But when I compare this to piano ballads like 'The Other Guy' by Jesse McCartney or 'Conclusions' by Frankmusik or 'Someone Like You' by Adele, which featured incredibly raw vocals to fit the complicated material in their songs, or the extreme lyrical stylings of Josh Tillman's most recent record as Father John Misty, or even the virtuoso pianist talents of John Legend at his best with songs like 'Ordinary People', 'Goon' by Tobias Jesso Jr. feels like a pale imitation. Something that could have more power, going for universality but spreading itself so thin to feel like a facsimile of better work, even if his emotions are real. For me, it's a strong 5/10 - hate to say it, but if you can't nail the simple formula, sometimes it's better to aim for something more.

1 comment:

  1. Would you compare this to something along the lines of Passenger?