Nick Jonas, Why So Serious?
Jonas goes for depth in Spaceman, and mostly gets lost in the shuffle.
There’s a saying that goes something like: Happy people make bad art. In the case of happily married Nick Jonas, whose new album Spaceman is out today, it’s more like bleh music.
The onetime Jonas Brother staged one of the more successful post–boy band solo careers in the mid-2010s, selling relatable bro bops like “Jealous” and “Bacon,” and capturing intimacy and heartbreak in hits like “Chains” and the Tove Lo collaboration “Close.”
He became one of the better centrist guy pop stars — not too conceptual but a good chronicler of butch sensitivity (and a Gay Twitter favorite). He’s been busy in the years since his last solo album, 2016’s Last Year Was Complicated, both personally and professionally. Marrying Priyanka Chopra in a flamboyantly sponconned wedding and spearheading the Jonas Brothers’ massively successful comeback in the spring of 2019 both upped his profile.
He collaborated with his brothers and producer-songwriter Ryan Tedder for the comeback album Happiness Begins’ biggest hit, “Sucker,” the only No. 1 song of their career, and a perfectly crafted maximalist big-tent pop hit of the kind that used to dominate the charts.
His new album, Spaceman, is a kind of concept album about feelings evoked by relationships, as well as a love letter to his wife. But Jonas’s personality is rendered bland through the concept, and the record’s coherence seems lost in space.
With this album, Jonas faced the Katy Perry “woke pop” problem of being a now grown-up big pop star in an era of massive change, and wanting to somehow earnestly engage in the cultural conversation while staying true to their largely lighthearted music.
The title song “Spaceman” — and album cover, where he stares into space — evokes ethereal, Bowie-esque otherworldliness. The lyrics are uncharacteristically serious and zeitgeisty, as Jonas sings about feeling hopeless and like a zombie in the midst of the pandemic. But it doesn’t really make sense for the theme of the album.
The album starts with conflict, as he yearns for a partner to stay in “Don’t Give Up on Us” and asks a girlfriend to work on their relationship in “Heights.” The latter is the more unique song, combining synths with a drumbeat evocative of the one in Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” as a moody backdrop for the lyrics about a guy not afraid of the ups and downs of romance. “I ain’t afraid of heights,” he sings, capturing a sense of fearlessness around emotion characteristic of his best work.
In the publicity material for the album, Jonas has said he was inspired by the sounds of favorite artists like Stevie Wonder and the Bee Gees. The disco group’s influence is most evident toward the middle of the album, which also feels the most like Jonas, chronicling the joys of sex and romance. “This Is Heaven,” the second single, about the euphoria of being with the perfect woman, hints at the Bee Gees’ knack for lush melodies. “Deeper Love” has some compelling drum work and even some quirky flutes; when he falsettos a “whoo,” you get the sense that Jonas is feeling himself, unfortunately a rare moment in the album.
There are hints of the old Nick, too, in “Delicious,” where he sings about liking to watch and describes a girlfriend “dripping in definition,” one of the least obvious naughty metaphors in the lyrics. A more confident pop star might have made that song the lead single, rather than trying to awkwardly match a somber moment in culture.
Spaceman is a concept album about feelings evoked by relationships, and a love letter to his wife. But Jonas’s personality is rendered bland through the concept.
Centrist pop stars are often at their best when collaborating with different producers who will bring out different quirks in their style, even as they stay true to their themes and sounds.
In this case, the entire album was produced by Greg Kurstin (who has worked with Adele and Sia), and Jonas cowrote almost all the songs with Kurstin and Mozella (who cowrote Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”).
But the most noteworthy part of the production is its lack of specific noteworthiness, as most songs, aside from the ones harking back to disco synth harmonies, sound like generic bits of contemporary big pop. The lack of diversity in collaboration shows in the lyrics too, which are often repetitive and riddled with clichés, telling rather than showing. For instance, no song with the title “Sexual” and the lyrics “I put the sex in sexual” can be good. This is at its worst when the album moves out of sexual euphoria and the songs lack urgency. “Now I’m high as a ceiling,” he sings, “too drunk and I’m all in my feelings,” in the song “2Drunk.” (It’s fine, but why are we listening to this?)
There’s a lack of specificity in the lyrics, an issue that becomes especially glaring when there are hints of more defined storytelling. “I remember talking on the first night,” he sings in “If I Fall.” “Chilled me to the bone ‘cause I realized / Everything before was a waste of time.” “This is caviar with some pringles,” he sings in “Death Do Us Part,” in one of the corny tell-not-show moments that doesn’t really come together. “Nervous,” a sweet song that wraps up the album, about the part of him that will “always be breathless” when his wife speaks, is also ruined by lyrics so trite they take you out of the song. (“You’re the reason why / My heart beats out my chest.”)
Jonas was at his peak in the “Jealous” era, which really set him apart as a pop star, thanks to provocatively gay-baiting fashion spreads, and a willingness to be vulnerable and specific in his lyrics that made them universal. His goal at that time, he said in an interview, was to “just be me and not being afraid to say or do anything outside of the realm of what I should be doing.”
But since that era, it’s been harder for him to stand out as a pop star. Drake, for instance, has avoided growing pains by insisting on holding on to teen feelings. Jonas is willing to grow up but hasn’t found his sweet spot. (Even his fashion in the “Spaceman” video is more distinctive than the song, nodding to the space theme in a Bowie-meets-Jersey-boy style more uniquely his own: wearing a tight, shiny blue astronaut onesie, and leaving just enough cleavage for chest hair.)
In his recent SNL appearance, he played Prince Charming and poked fun at himself, suggesting his celebrity wife is out of his league. But it was all too obvious and calculated, as if stardom itself is an angle. He needs to go back to the closer-to-home basicness that gave us “Jealous.” ●