Tobias Jesso Jr ‘Goon’ – Review

30 Mar

Tobias Jesso Jr came to light through the attention of hype blogs, gained credibility thanks to the involvement of former Girls member Chet Jr White and received rave reviews for early demos that he put out on Youtube. It’s like he read the manual for gaining indie cred. And yet nothing about his music feels at all indie. In almost every sense he has more in common with the less credible (but brilliant) Sam Smith than any of the artists on his small label, ‘True Panther Sounds.’ He’s cited his major influence as Adele, not Randy Newman, which is who he gets compared to by the hip websites. It’s telling that critics have ignored the similarity between Adele and Jesso Jr when it’s blatantly Adele with whom he has most in common. In almost every sense ‘Goon’ is a traditional singer-songwriter record that is built on simple lyrics, catchy melodies, soulful production and a rich vocal.

But ‘Goon’ is a strong album without standing out in any particular respect. The lyrics especially fail to leave a lasting mark. Jesso Jr told a disappointed Zane Lowe that he writes the lyrics last, and barely pays them any attention. While this may be a defensive remark from a sensitive soul deflecting attention away from some very personal sentiments that are expressed in the lyrics, the point stands that they don’t sound particularly laboured over. These are confessional songs that don’t really confess too much. He starts with a thread and by the end of the song that thread gets lost in a sea of mixed metaphors and moon/June rhymes. It means that the sweet and dramatic ‘Just a Dream’ falls apart when you hold its central idea up to even the slightest scrutiny (basically if the singer could say one last thing to his child before dying it would be that ‘there’s a thing called hate and there’s a thing called love too’ – hardly comforting or inspirational last words). Compared to the wealth of heartbroken singer-songwriters who have released sophisticated albums over the past twelve months (Bjork, Angel Olsen, Lykee Li, Sam Smith, Jessica Pratt, Jessie Ware, Taylor Swift, Natalie Prass etc) Jesso Jr’s lyrics are simply too predictable, bland and vague to really cut deep.

But Jesso Jr’s point would surely be that the lyrics simply serve the melodies, and it’s a point borne out in the work of his hero Adele. Adele has never been a gifted lyricist and yet people were too busy swooning over her gorgeous voice and humming her sticky melodies to notice. She was able to bring emotion out of the most simple words in the most effective ways. Jesso Jr also drags emotion out of these songs without exerting himself. He has a talent for crafting classic melodies that feel just new enough to prick the ear and familiar enough to comfort the listener. His voice certainly isn’t Adele standards, not even close, but it has personality and sincerity and he connects to the songs in his own way.

As for the songs themselves, ‘Goon’ is consistently very good. The less ambitious songs are the more successful ones; the short, acoustic ‘The Wait’, the Pet Sounds influenced ‘Leaving L.A’, which is easily the strangest and most interesting song on here, and the lo-fi ‘Bad Words’ which contains the most subtle and heart-tugging vocal performance on the album. When he takes the theatricality up a notch on some of the songs he is less effective. ‘How Could You Babe’ is catchy and moving but the lack of airplay and chart interest despite widespread attention suggests that the general public aren’t really feeling it. ‘Without You’ is pitched as a classic break-up ballad but lacks a killer hook or original thought. Too often Jesso Jr settles for just good enough, without looking beyond the obvious cliches that anchor too many of these songs.

Jesso Jr has already been talked about in league with the greats, but while ‘Goon’ is a good debut, I’d suggest that kind of talk is premature. He has both McCartney’s wide eyed wonder and Lennon’s attitude but as of this moment he has yet to write a song that can be held up next to the classics. Luckily he has talents that aren’t restricted by taste or time. He will surely get better with experience, and this form of music never goes in or out of style, meaning the best is hopefully still to come.

7/10

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