Friday, June 7, 2019

album review: 'happiness begins' by jonas brothers

I've said it before, I'll say it again: I missed the Jonas Brothers.

Not that I wanted them to come back or have some sort of fond nostalgia for the group - I literally had to check to be sure they weren't a part of High School Musical, even though they did come from the same Disney pop factory that gave us Miley and Demi - but that they were a little after my time. Strange that they missed my preteen years where I was an open fan of Hilary Duff and my university years where I was an open fan of Glee, but they were pumping out over-polished, basic pop rock where my tastes were more refined even then - you know, Fall Out Boy, Boys Like Girls, Simple Plan, that kind of thing.

But bad jokes aside, I've always had a bit of distance towards the whole Jonas Brothers thing - 'When You Look Me In The Eyes' was a good power ballad, sure, but the production was always mediocre at best and the band never brought a convincing edge or flair to bear, not helped by Nick Jonas needing a few years to grow into his voice... when he then promptly became an underwhelming solo act. And I honestly expected nothing more to come of the old group - Joe Jonas had gone on to his underwhelming pop-funk group DNCE, the third one - I've been told his name is Kevin - went on a bunch of reality shows, and irrelevance would hit once any of these guys hit their thirties. And then 'Sucker' became a radio behemoth riding on safety and nostalgia and suddenly there's a terrible follow-up single with 'Cool' and a new album waiting in the wings, and I'm stuck with a project that all the buzz was predicting was a multi-genre clusterfuck, not helped by the presence of executive producer Ryan Tedder. And look, Tedder has done great work in the past, but he's fallen off considerably since the 2000s and given that I have no real nostalgia for this group, I wasn't going to treat this with kid gloves - so what did we get from Happiness Begins?

So this project is both more and less interesting than it should be. On the one hand, it would be very easy for me to say that it's another Jonas Brothers album just updated for the modern era, with what could be serviceable pop crippled by bad production, weak writing, and lead performances lacking the punch or flair to carry a distinctive album. But on the other hand, this is an album that everything to gain by banking on nostalgia and a major charting single: I'd argue they're almost playing with house money here, so you'd think that they'd take every opportunity to deliver the most polished product to date, so the fact that this album sounds like so much of a cheap, sloppily produced cash-in is alarming. In other words, this should be better than it is, and I'm a little perversely fascinated why it isn't.

Now granted, part of this involves a conversation surrounding how the Jonas Brothers were never that good to begin with, either together or in their solo ventures, but while I've never liked DNCE, there have been songs from the band and the group that I've liked, so what's the factors that made those work? Well, a big part of this is that for as much as Nick Jonas wanted to be Justin Timberlake but with a more colourless instrumental palette behind him, when he had a good groove he could bring a veneer of cool or at least impassioned sincerity to the table, which is coincidentally the big reason why 'When You Look Me In The Eyes' was a good song. But I'd also argue that if you're expecting the Jonas Brothers to position themselves as a 'rock' band instead of a pure pop act - which is a reasonable assumption coming off of 'Sucker' - you might miss that just because you shoved guitars in their hands a decade ago doesn't mean that the Jonas Brothers are that far removed from similar tones that even the Backstreet Boys pursued in the 2000s. And ironically, if you remember that album the Backstreet Boys put out this year - and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't - you can definitely hear some sonic parallels, especially in the genre pileup, vocal harmonies that are more dependent on pitch-correction and reverb than they should be, and ultimately a derivative lack of clear direction not helped by bad trends endemic to mainstream pop right now - and unlike the Backstreet Boys, there's a clear leader in Nick Jonas which means whenever the other two are given more space, the songs immediately lose presence and balance, especially with Joe's woozy delivery.

And yes, I'm as tired of saying it as ever, especially as it feels like I've hammered this point for years now, but once again we have a pop album where for the majority of songs, the melody is consigned to the back of the mix, the percussion is placed up with the vocals, and we're stuck relying heavily on them for the hook and tune. And if you're someone who is already not all that impressed by the stage presence and especially the falsetto from these guys, it's hard not to feel many of these cuts are underwhelming, especially with abbreviated track lengths or in some cases hooks that just don't materialize - a bad sign when you have fourteen tracks and the weird feeling that you might have good enough hooks for half of them. Take one of the few exceptions to the formula, 'Only Human', with its cushion of squonky horns and gauzy synth - am I the only one who feels the hook never quite takes off and it's missing a bridge or something to fill out the song? And keep in mind this is the sort of approach that works best with cushions of reverb to flesh out the atmosphere, or at the very least well-mixed grooves - and this is where the Jonas Brothers strike out hard. Granted, I'm not surprised when you hear from Ryan Tedder that this is a group that writes a song in ninety minutes, cuts it in an hour, and then have a demo cut by the day's end, but would it have killed someone to maybe bring in a second or third take, or at the very least competently mix the percussion so it doesn't sound like ass? Not only is there zero consistency between the live drums and the programmed drum machines that sound as stale and clunky as ever, you also somehow get slapdash drum mixing where it sounds like rough fuzz and scratchiness of the mix was left in for no coherent reason - this isn't attempting a rock or 'lo-fi' vibe, it sounds like a rush job where nobody went back to polish anything and then tried to pass it off as experimental! It gets particularly grating with how tinny everything is mixed on 'Happy When I'm Sad' - which sounds like the Jonas Brothers tried to write an AJR song and failed - and that's right before you get the obese trap clunker 'Trust' where the groove and vocal layering somehow sound muddy, glassy, and weirdly zany at the same time and is flat atrocious. The few places where that might have clicked are 'Don't Throw It Away' and 'Strangers' with their 80s synth foundation, firmer rollick and obvious attempts to be The 1975, but you'd think that a sharper low-end groove would come through or the falsetto leads would be better layered without such obvious compression. But even songs that show a bit more refinement feel like baffling, go-nowhere experiments: I've already covered 'Sucker' and the disaster that is 'Cool' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but why does 'Every Single Time' sound like a 2014 MAGIC! cod-reggae song produced by Greg Kurstin? Why does 'Hesitate' sound like a Shawn Mendes riff, 'Rollercoaster' sound like a stab at an Avicii song circa 2013, or 'Love Her' sound like a rejected Ed Sheeran cut that bizarrely reminds me of 'She's Always A Woman To Me' by Billy Joel in its curdled condescension?

And I guess that takes us to the lyrics - and look, I think even the fans can admit that the Jonas Brothers were never a particularly deep or lyrical act; they were probably saddled with a Disney mandate that they couldn't get all that sexual or transgressive or they'd get shipped off for reprogramming. But I've given Nick Jonas credit for some moderately clever songwriting in the past... and thus it's a goddamn shame how underwhelming so many of these are, either falling into 'overwrought love song', 'mildly interesting breakup song', or 'outright disaster', which is where you can deposit junk like 'Cool' or 'Happy When I'm Sad', which almost seem like parodies for as basic and faintly embarrassing as they feel. And when you don't have much sophistication or unique language in the writing - which also doesn't help a lot of these stand out from each other - and the vocal lines are the most prominent melodic feature of these songs, you wind up clinging to the bare minimum and the elements that do stand out are all the more glaring. Yeah, 'I Believe' is a pretty basic, 80s-inspired love song, but the groove and vocal harmonies connect and thus it winds up as one of the few highlights - hell, I might even be forgiving to the hail mary of 'Don't Throw It Away' if you didn't get the line of how her mind is 'messin' with her head again'. It's a similar sour note that runs through 'Love Her', but the weird thing is that it clearly doesn't feel intentional to add complexity - these songs are all sold with complete sincerity, which is one reason why the wonder of 'Strangers' or even the straightforward desaturated plea of 'Comeback' kind of click, even if they might feel basic. On the flip side, though, if they were thinking that a song like 'Trust' or even 'Sucker' would shed the sexless sheen that always been attached to the group, they feel so desperate and airless that the lack of convincing sensuality is all the more obvious.

But as a whole... folks, I'm at a loss at what this album adds to pop right now. Not only are significant chunks shamelessly derivative, I'd argue it's not even competently produced or interestingly written to stand in the middle of the pack! And I guess that shouldn't be any surprise if these guys are chasing an obvious nostalgia dollar and they need something new to play between the 'hits' on tour, but this feels slapdash and weightless even by that standard. And yet I can't say it's sterile or uninteresting because of the sheer number of missteps it makes and choices that have to be heard to be believed - most bad, but a few like 'I Believe', 'Don't Throw It Away', and 'Strangers' being pretty good. But those are not enough to save this from getting a strong 4/10 and not really a recommendation - folks, even if you grew up with the Jonas Brothers or are buying into the radio hype now, there's better pop than this, and these guys have sold enough albums that they don't need another cheap paycheque. In other words, you can skip this.

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