If you’ve traversed the music blog circuit even casually during the past two weeks, you’ve likely come across the name of Tobias Jesso Jr. Maybe you wondered why you were seeing his name in AV Club and not an Evelyn Waugh novel, or if his album cover was a picture of Jesse Eisenberg.
Here’s a brief introduction: He is a Canadian musician whose stock in trade is the upright piano and simple, melancholic pop songs. His debut album, Goon, channels the understated cooing of an early-Seventies Paul Simon, the plebeian piano-chording of a just-post-Beatles John Lennon, Harry Nilsson’s ne’er-do-well affability (less humor), and Warren Zevon’s plaintive simplicity (fewer sociopathic tendencies).
The list of reference points truly goes on and on, long enough to create inevitable headaches for fans of Seventies singer-songwriters of either American coast, who will constantly think, “What song does this hook remind me so strongly of?” For those whose record collections look similar to Jesso’s, the connotations may provide grounds for dismissal of Goon— that is, as milquetoast imitation of musical syntax from another time. Apart from this, the album is an unusually consistent group of pop songs, the work of a writer who knows when to stop embellishing and keep a song as close as possible to the little, sticky idea he first sat down and plunked out. Jesso walks a very difficult line between kitsch and pre-professional, Brill Building durability that is the aim behind writing songs like this: lyrically archetypal, streamlined, and gently infectious.
Many artists of the last decade and a half have reached for this ideal with mixed results, often moving haplessly into more generic or ill-advised realms. Now-Shins member Richard Swift, Liam Hayes a/k/a Plush (of High Fidelity barroom-scene fame), early-years-Waits tribute artist Ed Harcourt, and an assortment of marginally known singer/songwriters jump to mind. Jesso’s album is atypical among these ranks in that it only takes a listen or two to remember most of the songs. The downside is that, as you continue listening, few pleasures reveal themselves outside of the initial ones — the carefully shaped melodic arcs, the controlled but unvarnished vocal takes, and the live sound of the arrangements, sometimes bolstered by faint vocal harmonies (see the chorus of headline single “How Could You Babe,” an easy highlight of the album).
One could build an “industry plant” conspiracy theory based on the extent to which Jesso’s backstory so perfectly fits his music. He struggled for several years in the L.A. music scene, playing in a band, backing and writing for other musicians. As a result, he gets to write songs like “Leaving L.A.” and “Hollywood,” which — both in lyrics and musical style — chain his years faking it to make it to the decades-old romantic picture of a struggling, troubled singer-songwriter working in that city. (The specter of a less gravelly Waits doing early gin-soaked gigs at the Troubadour comes to mind.)
After a cathartic cycle-related accident and a despairing retreat back to Canada, Jesso found an unexpected in with the business on the back of a handful of lo-fi demos. As if out of nowhere, a small crack team of broken-in experts in punchy retro-pop polish materialized to help him achieve his goals: drummers from HAIM and the Black Keys, and JR White (formerly of neo-psych-pop outfit Girls, whose final album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, was as unabashedly backward-looking and instantly engaging as Jesso’s), presiding. Today, Jesso is the potential freshman singer-songwriter success story of 2015, behind an unprecedented amount of positive press, a much-lauded run at South by Southwest and some gushing tweets from…Adele. His victory lap will be two NYC shows on Thursday and Friday, at Mercury Lounge and Baby’s All Right, respectively. Both have long since sold out.
Jesso’s songs feel like either refreshing examples of the type of rigorous songwriting on which pop music has always thrived, or embodiments of a problem specific to alternative pop and rock music rooted in the past few years: dressing up old ideas in trendy new clothing, ready-made for immediate, gluttonous consumption, like a new, cliffhanger-filled Netflix show one tears through in a weekend. Goon is not a painting to stare too hard at; the image described looks the same close up as from far away. There are some grimace-worthy lyrics and referential gestures (it’s unfortunate, for instance, that John Lennon’s preferred studio tricks for vocal recording had to be run through like a laundry list, that Jesso sneers like a young Randy Newman while discussing a “war” and last night’s “dream,” and that Harry Nilsson already has a chunky, somber piano ballad called “WithoutYou”). But we shouldn’t get bogged down. At its best, Goon packs some of the most contagious pop songwriting of the year so far, and it’s not surprising that the record is being so widely celebrated. For the many who can avoid being preoccupied by the context for these sounds — who can appreciate the charms of an earworm-y and unquestionably pleasant group of songs — it will be the indie-rock debut to beat this year.
Tobias Jesso Jr. plays the Mercury Lounge March 26 and Baby’s All Right March 27. The shows have sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.
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