It’s was not that long ago that I criticized music critics for comparing Jonas Brothers to Hanson almost by default. Since I probably like them both much, much better than the next guy, I don’t think either of them should take these comparisons as insults; they’re just so incredibly predictable. But here we are, just months later, with the youngest Jonas Brother, Nick, prepared to launch his solo debut, Who I Am, with able The Administration as his backing band. And, predictably following the Hanson script left from the release of the Tulsa trio’s sophomore album This Time Around, the early reviews for Jonas closely track those from the early 2000’s. Just like Hanson were accused of abandoning their cheerful teen pop too soon, Boston Globe greets Jonas with a mildly patronizing headline abot ‘a Jonas brother’s growing pains‘, while the BBC’s review strikes a similar tone (‘When a young pop star with a huge, devoted audience attempts to make the jump from the teen present to a more grown-up future (…)’. And just like Taylor Hanson was once dubbed ‘the Beyonce of [Hanson]’, several reviews position Nick as the real creative force of Jonas Brothers. That may very well be true, it just gets a little annoying when it’s used a way for the reviewer to try to justify why Nick earned the chance to stage a solo project in the first place.
Not everything that’s predictable is necessarily wrong, however; the framing is just not very interesting. But Who I Am actually does suffer from Nick Jonas trying a little too hard to sound serious, losing much of what made Jonas Brothers such a treat. His voice is distinct enough that a certain JoBro feel is unavoidable, but for most of the time, Nick’s crooning is closer to Gavin DeGraw than anything he’s done before. It might be a bad sign that the Canadian behind songs like Follow Through, Chariot and I Don’t Want To Be disappared so quickly that most people don’t even remember him by now, but on In The End and Olive & An Arrow, the slick soul reminded me of DeGraw’s Chariot…Stripped, the inexusably dull soul edition that accompanied the re-release of his otherwise catchy album breakthrough. It’s competent, sure, but I simply don’t feel the sense of urgency that Jonas so desperately tries to invoke. Unfortunately, the result isn’t much better when he actually takes on his JoBro legacy head on.. Even though Tonight wasn’t among the most memorable moments on A Little Bit Longer, this is where the Gavin DeGraw comparison is most apt. Like DeGraw, Jonas takes a perfectly decent song and turns it into a syrupy drag.
The not exactly smooth shifts between such ballads (with Vesper’s Goodbye as a good exception) and attempts at a kind of gritty funk that’s an awkward match for his fundamentally soft voice, leaves me with the feeling that the title of the album, Who I Am, is too definitive. At times it feels more like a Who Am I? album. I’m sure Nick appreciated the chance to show off his considerable talents, but the end total smacks more of him trying to prove (or possibly even reinvent) himself than of a coherent rock record. On his way to proving his musical flexibility there were certainly moments when I was impressed by a hook here or a falsetto there, but only rarely did the songs as a whole add up to something I’d yearn to listen to again. Like he’s channeling the newly elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown insisting he’s a ‘Nick Jonas Jonas’,* or asserting his artistic independence by paraphrasing Howard Dean (‘I represent the Nick Jonas wing of the Jonas Brothers’**), his first solo album comes across as so conciously competent it almost feels like he left his real passion outside the studio. It’s not bad, exactly, only paradoxically safe and a little boring.
And, not to end on a snarky note or anything, put that seeming lack of passion is what puzzles me the most. The roll-out of Nick Jonas & The Administration last October was plenty passionate, if also mind-numbingly bad: “If I was to describe the sound to someone… I would say its “heart & soul”, because the music that I make is from my heart, and the lyrics I write are from my soul.” Again, I just ain’t feelin’ it.
* Scott Brown famously dubbed himself ‘a Scott Brown Republican’ as a sign of independence.
** Howard Dean, when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said ‘I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party’), in trying to explain why he didn’t want to compromise his core principles to strike deals with Republicans.