A quick note: Even if you haven’t fallen in love with it, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is this week’s Album Of The Week, no question. But we’ve already run our review, and so here’s something else.
“You said you never met a girl who had as many James Taylor records as you,” Taylor Swift once sang. “But I do.” Back in 2012, when she sang that line, it was a total head-scratcher. Who in the hell, other than Swift, (1) owns a lot of James Taylor records and (2) regards those records as indicators of romantic compatibility? A couple of years later, we finally have an answer to that question. Lately, gossip websites have been breathlessly circulating rumors that Tobias Jesso Jr., a Canadian singer-songwriter who probably owns a shit-ton of James Taylor records, is dating Swift. I have no idea if it’s true, but I love this rumor. Part of it is because I’m delighted to see my fellow tall motherfuckers out here making moves. (Jesso is 6’7″, which puts him in the rarefied circle of “musicians tall enough to play power forward off the bench in the NBA.” He’s only four inches shorter than me!) But it’s also because these two goofs seem so perfect for each other. Granted, Swift is the biggest pop star in the world, and Jesso was a guy posting lo-fi solo-piano songs on YouTube a few months ago. But both of them are sad-eyed naifs with powerful melodic gifts who sing exquisitely crafted songs about having their fragile little hearts broken. Both of them sing about breakups like they’re absolute emotional apocalypses. Both of them have kind faces and interesting hair. How could they be anything less than ideal for each other? How could this possibly end badly?
A couple of months ago, our own Chris DeVille wrote a piece asking if 2015 would be the year of the ’70s singer-songwriter. This has proven eerily prescient. Father John Misty, Natalie Prass, Matthew E. White, Jessica Pratt, Ryley Walker — they’ve all found acclaim and audiences by making bright, ornate, beautifully recorded albums, albums that burst with sly melody and sonic detail and analog ’70s warmth. All of them sound like people out of time, like they should be drinking elaborate cocktails with Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne at Laurel Canyon pool parties. Father John Misty is the best of them, and he’s also the darkest and most self-aware. He’s a grizzled overthinker, a swaggering grown-man type who worries that his feelings would look like cliched balls of fluff if he didn’t hide them in quotation marks. Jesso draws from a similar influence pool, but he’s Misty’s spiritual, emotional opposite. There’s no self-awareness to what Jesso does. He belts out old aphorisms in his bell-clear choirboy tenor like he’s the first person who ever thought of them. He’s 29, only four years younger than Father John Misty, but on his debut album Goon, he could be a gifted 15-year-old. His lyrics read like tortured kid’s diary scribbles. They’re self-obsessed and openhearted, and they’d be cloying as all hell if the songs weren’t really, really good. Fortunately for Jesso, and for us, they are.
Jesso’s music may be all soft flutters, but he’s also a canny operator, one who knows how to hook up with the right people. He recorded most of Goon with Chet “JR” White, formerly half of Girls, and that’s a guy who knows how to produce a voice like his. As a singer, he’s bigger and slicker than Christopher Owens, White’s former partner in Girls, but there’s a lost-little-kid quality to both of them (even if both came into the game in their late twenties). And both of them, especially when surrounded by White’s beautifully arranged guitars and strings and drums, have a way of sounding warm and vulnerable in ways that are just enormously empathetic. Consider, for example, the single “How Could You Babe.” Lyrically, it’s Jesso complaining bitterly that his ex would have the temerity to take up with someone else and find happiness post-breakup, even saying that he knows they’ll be back together again someday. This is some toxic, entitled ex-boyfriend shit, and it should come off pathetic, not sympathetic. But the way Jesso’s voice goes from bluesily conversational to wracked, strangulated moan on the chorus — and the way White uses just the right levels of sustain on the backing vocals and brush-stroked drums and murmuring organs — make this sound like a lost AM-gold nugget, a brokenhearted koan. “Just A Dream” is Jesso singing about his nonexistent daughter on the day the world ends, and this should be total self-involved Hallmark-card nonsense, especially coming from a man with no kids. But the way the drums roll into the huge, life-affirming hook, it can be enough to overwhelm you if you hear it at the right moment. On a recent solo road-trip, I teared up a little bit while listening to it. I didn’t want to, but I did.
You can probably see that I’ve been resisting this stuff. Many of us learned, in our younger music-dork days, to be suspicious of big and gleaming and intricately arranged music like this. Goon is indie rock in name only, mostly by association, and I can’t remember the last time I loved an album as unpunk as this. (I want to say it was Swift’s 1989, but that at least had some teeth in its melodies.) This is soft-batch music, car-commercial music, music that could bleat over tinny speakers while you’re buying frozen yogurt. It’s music with absolutely no ideology that somehow still raises ideological hackles. It’s sincere retro white-people music from someone who will probably be very famous very soon. (Other than White, the two producers on the album are Patrick Carney and Ariel Rechtshaid, and Adele has already tweeted her support. People in power are behind this guy.) There is very little separating Jesso from, say, Hozier beyond the simple, profound beauty of his music. But his music is absolutely goddam fucking beautiful, and when you strip away all the bullshit, that is enough. Those James Taylor records paid off.
Goon is out today on True Panther.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kendrick Lamar’s tortured post-rap odyssey To Pimp A Butterfly.
• Modest Mouse’s long-awaited comeback Strangers To Ourselves.
• Twin Shadow’s sweltering, slick Eclipse.
• Chastity Belt’s lovely, reverbed-out dream-popper Time To Go Home.
• Inventions organic ambient bliss-out Maze Of Woods.
• Ghost Bath’s vast, intense black metaller Moonlover.
• WAND’s drone-psych freakout Golem.
• Van Morrison’s famous-friends team-up Duets: Re-Working The Catalog.
• Mark Knopfler’s Scott Lapatine-bait LP Tracker.
• Pyramids’ graceful, wandering Radiohead-metal head-trip A Northern Meadow.
• Simon Joyner’s skeletal folker Grass, Branch & Bone.
• Dødheimsgard’s experimental black metal mood piece A Umbra Omega.
• Nic Hessler’s shimmering power-popper Soft Connections.
• Tom Demac’s woozy house LP Smoke Stained Ivories.
• Yeesh’s needling math-punker No Problem.
• The nonprofit tribute album It Was Triumph We Once Proposed… Songs Of Jason Molina.
• The collab-heavy Insurgent soundtrack.
• The rap-driven Furious 7 soundtrack.
• Andrea Balency’s Volcano EP.