The Week In Pop: Nate Ruess Went Solo, Made A Fun. Album Anyway
Andrew Dost got screwed. Last year, when Fun. frontman Nate Ruess unilaterally decided to transform the next Fun. album into his solo debut, he essentially cut his bandmates out of one of music’s most bankable franchises. Fun.’s excellent-if-sometimes-grating 2012 LP Some Nights rocketed the trio from a respectable cult following to multiplatinum Grammy-winning pop superstardom. As Ruess told Rolling Stone earlier this year, everyone with any kind of business connection to Fun. was counting on the next record to be just as massive, and I have to believe Dost — the band’s keyboardist and one of its three founding members — was among them. Guitarist Jack Antonoff can at least enjoy the rightful, ever-increasing success of his ’80s throwback solo act, Bleachers. But Antonoff and Dost had every reason to react poorly when Ruess explained that he was kicking them off the money train.
Ruess, for his part, says he was just following his heart. He’s in love, you see, and his latest songs are so unguardedly personal and uncharacteristically happy that he had to make the album under his own name. Allegedly he was spurning the expectations of the promotional machine and answering only to inspiration; his passion for fashion designer Charlotte Ronson is so fiery and unquenchable that the resulting songs, many of which were originally conceived with his band in mind, could only be credited to Nate Ruess, full stop. He might really mean all that — rock-star delusions have been far wilder, and human beings are nothing if not skilled at justifying their own decisions — but you don’t have to listen to Grand Romantic very long before you realize Ruess made another Fun. album. A rose by any other name, etc., etc.
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Some Nights was a weird record in that I thought it was a truly fantastic achievement but I completely understand why some listeners recoil from it. Ruess’ voice has a cloying nasal quality that can be deeply obnoxious if you’re in the wrong mood, particularly when he deploys it in service of his overgrown boy shtick. While I find it charming that he’s constantly singing about his mom and dad, that kind of homesick mewling doesn’t exactly scream “ROCK ‘N’ ROLLLL!” But he’s a wildly talented singer, the rare rock frontman capable of knocking his songs out of the park on stage and in the studio, and his knack for melody is undeniable. His embrace of Auto-Tune as a stylistic tool was smart, as was the decision to bring in producer Jeff Bhasker to create state-of-the-art radio music on the scale of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. At its best, Some Nights lived up to that scale. From the front-loaded hit singles down through the stacked deep cuts (with the exception of the atrocious mall-punk excursion “It Gets Better”), the album presented pop-rock epics for the hip-hop age, merging Fun.’s emo survivor bona fides with heavy doses of Queen and Elton John and encasing it all in Bhasker’s stadium-status pop production.
Grand Romantic is the next logical step after Some Nights, plagued by many of the same weaknesses and bolstered by most of the same strengths. It’s the blockbuster follow-up Fun. were bound to make, mostly maintaining their winning formula while occasionally pushing it into more saccharine territory. Universally, the best songs are the ones that sound like sequels to Some Nights tracks — explosive-yet-contemplative opener “AhHa” carries the Freddie-Mercury-lovin’ torch for “Some Nights”; lighters-up lead single “Nothing Without Love” is your new “We Are Young”; the jaunty “Great Big Storm” calls back to the similarly sprightly “All Alone.” Fun. even performed the exultant me-against-the-world anthem “Harsh Light” on Jimmy Fallon last year before Ruess decided to keep it for himself. The millions of people who fell for Fun. last time around will find a lot to love here, me included.
The album does explore new territory for Ruess. He’s spent his whole career paring back layers of pop-punk packaging and turning loose the theatrical chamber-pop that has was even at the core of his previous band the Format, and that continues here. Lyrically, the big change is that he’s happy for once, but that doesn’t much alter the sound or feeling of the project; the main adjustments are sonic, many of them for the worse. Presumably collaborations with canonized walking authenticity-bearers Jeff Tweedy and Beck are designed to lend credibility — Tweedy supplies one of his jagged guitar solos on the Sky Blue Sky-style slog “Take It Back,” while Beck slathers the gloopy, sub-ELO “What This World Is Coming To” in the kind of art-folk production that won Morning Phase a Grammy — but those mushy tracks mostly just halt Grand Romantic’s momentum. Similarly, the title track borrows the choir from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but falls short of such grandiose ambitions.
There’s more of that kind of thing, and it ensures that Grand Romantic drags where Some Nights soared. Soft-rock in general is not Ruess’ forte — the further away he stays from his despicable Pink duet “Just Give Me A Reason,” the better — but it only figures he’d play with adult-contempo sounds after radio so heartily embraced Some Nights. Fortunately, not all of the new sounds are so milquetoast. Finger-snapping New Wave cut “Light My Fire” is a far more attractive evolution; like Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance,” it’s an ’80s throwback that adds up to more than just a nostalgic exercise. And if string-laden closer “Brightside” sounds like something out of Fun.: The Musical or Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips covering An American Tale’s “Somewhere Out There,” well, I can vibe with that. Ruess is pretty much guaranteed to end up on Broadway anyway.
Yes, Grand Romantic will push the usual buttons, infuriating and inspiring all the usual suspects. If you think Ruess is a twerp and/or a douche, this album will reinforce that opinion, and if you’ve come to love his music despite the twerp-douchiness of it all, you’ll again find a lot to admire: his prodigious vocal arrangements, his ability to combine widely tapped influences into a singular sound, his innate understanding of how to bring the house down. Considering how well he was able to replicate the Some Nights sound without his former(?) bandmates, maybe it was totally fair for him for him to put Fun. on ill-defined hiatus. Maybe that sound is actually just the Nate Ruess sound, and he’s just laying claim to what’s rightfully his. But if you’re Dost and Antonoff, seeing him carry on without you has to be anything but fun.
I am continually amazed at the ever-expanding popularity of Florence + The Machine. It’s not that I have anything against Florence Welch’s music — I just don’t know who all these Florence superfans are. But there are a lot of them out there because the band’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful moved 137,000 equivalent units (128,000 in pure sales) last week to become their first US #1 album. Billboard reports that the Machine’s last album, 2011’s Ceremonials, topped out at #6 with a 105,000 opening sales week.
Way below Florence, Taylor Swift’s 1989 stays strong at #2 for yet another week with 66,000 units, followed by A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP. At #4 is another debut, Jason Derulo’s Everything Is 4, which starts with 37,000, numbers that would barely crack the top 10 some weeks. Only 22,000 of Derulo’s units were pure sales, so he benefitted a lot from the chart’s inclusion of streaming data. Up next are two top 10 mainstays, Ed Sheeran’s x (#5, 36,000) and the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack (#6, 34,000).
The final top-10 debut of the week is Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s collaborative LP Django And Jimmie, entering at #7 with 31,000. A whopping 30,000 of that total is based on sales; unsurprisingly, Nelson and Haggard’s fan base isn’t too keen on streaming. This is crazy, but Django And Jimmie is Haggard’s first top-10 album (and Nelson’s fourth). The rest of the top 10: Meghan Trainor’s Title (#8, just over 30,000), Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde (#9, 30,000), and Maroon 5’s V (#10, 29,000). A few debuts of note just outside the top 10: Jamie xx’s In Colour, Major Lazer’s Peace Is The Mission, and Lil Durk’s Remember My Name.
Over on the Hot 100, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” continues a long reign that was only briefly interrupted by Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar’s “Bad Blood” remix. “See You Again” has now been on top for eight nonconsecutive weeks. Your next three hits remain the same: “Bad Blood” at #2 followed by Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” at #3 and Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” at #4. (If only Fetty got credit for streams of Sheeran’s shitty version, his song would easily go to #1.) Derulo’s “Want To Want Me” hits a new peak at #5, then it’s old familiars by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk,” #6) and the Weeknd (“Earned It,” #7). The David Guetta/Nicki Minaj/Afrojack/Bebe Rexha collaboration “Hey Mama” stays at #8. “Honey I’m Good,” Andy Grammer’s ode to not stepping out on your significant other, climbs to #9, a new high. And Maroon 5’s “Sugar” closes out the top 10.
Miley Cyrus – “Nightmare”
This dubstep-infused “Since U Been Gone” is a Bangerz outtake, not the product of Cyrus’ partnership with the Flaming Lips or her latest sessions with Mike Will Made It. But regardless of whether it’s new, it’s great. The girl is one of pop’s best wild cards, and she knows how to make interesting songs in all kinds of genres.
Walk The Moon – “Different Colors”
This song marks a steep decline from “Shut Up And Dance,” but that “Ooh-ee-ooh-ee-ooh” chorus is probably strong enough to save Walk The Moon from one-hit wonder status.
Wale – “Matrimony” (Feat. Usher)
I was not kind to Wale’s The Album About Nothing, but I have to admit I have grown fond of this song after repeat radio exposure. Wale is at his best when sorting through internal conflicts in raw, emotional mode, and Usher can make any hook sound like pop music genius.
Adam Lambert – “The Original High”
If by “chasing the original high” Lambert means all the songs he’s releasing are failing to recapture the electricity of his American Idol run, then yes, he’s right. This is standard EDM-pop, and given Max Martin’s heavy involvement with Lambert’s new album, I expected better.
K Camp – “Comfortable”
K Camp does a pretty good Drake impression!
Rudimental – “Never Let You Go”
Alex Clare’s “Too Close” was really quite influential, wasn’t it?
Jessie J, Jhené Aiko, & Rixton – “Sorry To Interrupt” (Prod. DJ Mustard)
Intriguing cast of characters here, but unfortunately, the most interesting thing about this song is that it’s sponsored by Pop-Tarts for some reason.
Years & Years – “Shine”
I prefer the Danny L. Harle remix, but Years & Years’ expertise in gleaming new-millennial pop-rock cannot be denied.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Is Jaden Smith about to drop a collaboration with Ezra Koenig? [Complex]
- Carrie Underwood dominated the CMT Awards last night. [Rolling Stone]
- Ed Sheeran thinks Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” is the song of the summer. [Vulture]
- David Guetta is writing the theme song for the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. [NME]
- Nick Jonas, who was originally supposed to open for Iggy Azalea on tour this summer, has replaced her at the Pittsburgh pride event. [Idolator]
- 98 Degrees’ Nick and Drew Lachey are getting their own reality show.[EW]
- Brace yourselves: Macklemore has procreated. [MTV]