The New Nick Jonas Album Captures The Feeling Of Sterile Quarantine Life A Little Too Well
“Nick Jonas Is On The Verge Of Something Awesome.” This was the headline when I reviewed the Jonas Brother’s self-titled solo album in 2014. My thought back then was that, buoyed by the falsetto-powered pop-R&B jam “Jealous,” Jonas was edging toward a truly fascinating career in pop music. In hindsight, I was extrapolating a lot from one endlessly listenable single — think of “Jealous” as a Muppet Babies version of Miguel’s “Adorn” — and trying to talk myself into the idea of Jonas as some kind of future pop auteur.
It hasn’t gone that way. Instead, Jonas’ music has remained perpetually on the brink — often solid, largely unmemorable adult contemporary pop that can’t quite reach transcendence. His second grownup solo LP, 2016’s Last Year Was Complicated, was a decent effort, blessed by strong Tove Lo and Ty Dolla $ign collaborations I had completely forgotten about until revisiting his career for this column. But it didn’t seem to change anyone’s life — least of all Jonas, who soon reunited with his brothers for an improbably successful grownup reboot overseen by Ryan Tedder. The nouveau JoBros wrote some very catchy songs, chief among them the #1 smash “Sucker” — think of it as an improvement upon Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” — but there was still an antisepic quality to it all. Most pop music created in the major-label trenches is product at least as much as art, but at its best, even the glossiest, most artificial material can yield ecstatic returns. We all know the rush that accompanies a great pop song. More often than not, that rush seems just beyond Jonas’ grasp.
In one sense, every album recorded since March 2020 has been a “quarantine album.” Jonas’ new Spaceman is one that tackles our collective lockdown experience head-on. “Spaceman came into my mind because I was thinking, ‘What’s the one thing that all of us have felt during this time?’ It’s just completely disconnected from the world,” Jonas explained to Zane Lowe recently. “We’ve gotten so accustomed to looking at a screen instead of human interaction, and I think the thing that keeps us all encouraged and hopeful is just the idea of knowing that there will be a tomorrow when this isn’t our reality.” It’s a relatable concept, but Spaceman captures the sterile alienation of pandemic life a little too well.
Like you and almost everyone you know, Jonas and his wife, actress Priyanka Chopra, spent large stretches of the past year mostly stuck at home due to COVID-19. Spaceman zeroes in on various facets of that experience. On the simultaneously bouncy and floaty “2Drunk,” he ends up sloshed to oblivion out of sheer boredom while Chopra is presumably off somewhere shooting scenes. On the Frank Ocean-inspired “Death Do Us Part,” he compares his home life with Chopra to “caviar with some Pringles” — surely some kind of inside joke about their household’s domestic snacking habits — and, in a possible allusion to pandemic viewing staple The Last Dance, “MJ in the playoffs.” There are abundant songs about the glory of physical intimacy with his wife, including the exultant, sax-blasted “This Is Heaven,” which reframes life at home with a lover as a state of eternal bliss. You can see why they picked that one as a single rather than the subsequent “Sexual,” in which he confusingly boasts, “You put the ‘sex’ in sexual.”
Strewn with references to our collective experience, lead single and title track “Spaceman” is an especially vivid time capsule from a moment that is hopefully about to disappear into history. “Mask off minute I get home/ All safe now that I’m alone,” begins one verse. “And the numbers are high but we keep goin’ down/ ‘Cause we ain’t supposed to live with nobody around,” goes another. There’s also a nod to last year’s political chaos: “They say it’s a phase, it’ll change if we vote/ And I pray that it will, but I know that it won’t.” Pop music has been designed for zoning out online for the better part of a decade now, but this song and many others on the album burrow even deeper into that lush yet detached headspace. Built from somber acoustic strums, ricocheting trap hi-hats, and a starry sky full of keyboard blips, “Spaceman” feels as dazed as a day spent hopping from one Zoom meeting to the next. A new deluxe version of the album out today ends with three “chill versions” of the songs, as if most of them weren’t already extremely chill.
At a time when pop stans increasingly demand distinct eras from their faves, Jonas’ latest is a real album experience, with a consistent sonic footprint and lyrical point of view. It’s the most confident, coherent statement yet from Jonas, with writing and production that caters to his silky vocal prowess. Working closely with Greg Kurstin and Maureen “Mozella” McDonald, he has settled into a form of synthetic lite-FM pop heavily indebted to the softest sounds of the 1980s. Because this is 2021, the album’s moody textures involve trap beats and hard-pounding synths and rippling ambient sounds, particularly at the beginning and ending of the album. Yet it’s also an environment where synthetic brass can playfully interact with squelching bass on some kind of “You Can Call Me Al” tip (“Delicious”) and the melody from Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” is interpolated into production not so different from Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” (“Deeper Love”).
Jonas clearly has a handle on what he wants to do. But since what he wants to do is soundtrack the dentist’s office of the future, it’s hard to get excited about Spaceman despite the impeccable production and performance. Admittedly, if Justin Timberlake released this exact album right now, I’d praise him for figuring out a way to pivot gracefully from Man Of The Woods and the Trolls franchise into a less aggressively hokey middle age. There are songs here that could pass for deep cuts from the Weeknd or the 1975, but without the weirdo creative impulses and biting punk attitude that complement those artists’ deep dives into ’80s cheese. Many of them also unfortunately resemble Justin Bieber’s Changes, another sleek and miasmic album about being walled off from the world with your spouse. To his credit Jonas sounds like he’s having a lot more fun with the situation than Bieber did. But ultimately, like so many other pandemic experiences, Spaceman is the kind of fun you settle for when your options are limited.
At long last, there is some major turnover atop the Hot 100. Olivia Rodrigo’s reign at #1 is over (for now) after eight weeks as all three songs from Drake’s Scary Hours 2 EP debut in the top three. No artist has ever launched three songs into the chart’s top three spots in their first week before, but Drake, one of the Hot 100’s most decorated record-setters, has become the first. Speaking of which, with three new songs in the top 10, he extends his record for most career top-10 hits to 45.
Fulfilling the song’s lyrics about hitting “numero uno” on the chart, “What’s Next” enters at #1, becoming Drake’s sixth #1 hit as a lead artist and eighth overall (counting his appearances on Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” and “Work”) as well as the 49th song in the chart’s history to debut on top. Three of those prior #1 debuts belonged to Drake: 2018’s “God’s Plan,” 2018’s “Nice For What,” and 2020’s “Toosie Slide.”
Working our way down the Scary Hours 2 tracklist, the Lil Baby collab “Wants And Needs” debuts at #2. It’s Lil Baby’s sixth top-10 hit and his highest-charting song to date. The Rick Ross linkup “Lemon Pepper Freestyle” starts out at #3, also the top career chart position for Ross. (He previously peaked at #7 with his prior Drake duet “Money In The Grave.”) Drake joins the Beatles and Ariana Grande as the only artists to occupy the top three spots on the chart all at once. He also increases his lead for most career weeks at #1 among solo males; he now has 51, ahead of Usher’s 47.
Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s new band Silk Sonic nab a #4 debut for their opening volley “Leave The Door Open.” It’s not only .Paak’s first top 10 single, it’s only his second trip to the Hot 100 at all following an appearance on Eminem’s #89-peaking “Lock It Up.” Perhaps it will climb a bit next week after last night’s Grammys performance. Crazy to think that one would have been a #1 debut as well if not for Drake’s historic week. This is the first time the top four spots on the Hot 100 have all been debuts.
The rest of the top 10: Cardi B’s “Up” at #6, the Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” at #7, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #8 (its record-extending 53rd week in the top 10), Ariana Grande’s “34+35” at #9, and 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” at #10.
If the singles chart is finally seeing some churn, the albums chart remains stagnant. With 78,000 equivalent album units, most of them via streaming, Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album logs its ninth straight week at #1. That’s the most weeks any album has spent atop the chart since Drake’s Views in 2016. Per Billboard, only three other country albums have ever lasted nine weeks at #1: Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind (18 weeks, 1991-92), Billy Ray Cyrus’ Some Gave All (17, 1992) and Taylor Swift’s Fearless (11, 2008-09).
This week does, however, end the three-week drought of new album debuts in the top 10, just barely. After Pop Smoke, Pooh Shiesty, the Weeknd, Lil Durk, Dua Lipa, Lil Baby, and Ariana Grande comes a #9 debut for Chevelle. The rock band tallied 28,000 units and 24,000 in sales for Niratias, their fifth top-10 album. It’s also easily #1 on the Top Album Sales chart. Luke Combs closes out the top 10. (Kings Of Leon’s When You See Yourself debuts just outside the frame at #11 and is right behind Chevelle on the pure sales chart.)
Imagine Dragons – “Follow You” & “Cutthroat”
“Follow You,” recorded with Lorde/Taylor Swift producer Joel Little, sounds like Post Malone. “Cutthroat,” recorded with Rick Rubin, is delightfully unhinged and completely unlistenable. So yeah, I guess I am officially curious about the new Imagine Dragons album.
Machine Gun Kelly – “DAYWALKER!” (Feat. CORPSE)
Now that he is following up his pop-punk album by making absolutely batshit lo-fi hip-hop with YouTuber CORPSE HUSBAND, I guess I am officially curious about MGK’s next move as well.
Rosé – “On The Ground”
Pretty nice little debut solo single here from Blackpink’s Rosé: kind of a country-tinged pop song with walloping synth undercurrents?
Selena Gomez – “Adios”
This is the best Spanish-language Selena Gomez single to date because it merges that eternal reggaeton thump with the slinky appeal of Gomez’s best work.
Giveon – “Heartbreak Anniversary
The depth on that voice! The agility! The power! The feeling!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Here’s Lady Gaga and Adam Driver in costume on the set of Ridley Scott’s Gucci murder drama. [Instagram]
- Adele’s divorce has been finalized; she and her ex will share custody and neither will have to pay spousal support. [TMZ]
- Demi Lovato reveals that while she no longer uses hard drugs, she has not cut marijuana or alcohol out of her life: “I think I want to try this balance thing.” [Us]
- Zara Larsson fired her creative director Ryder Ripps after his fiancée Azealia Banks revealed he bodyshamed the pop star in messages to her. [Twitter]
- Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez deny they broke up. [People]
- Following Harry and Meghan’s explosive interview with Oprah, Beyoncé posted a message of support on her website: “Thank you Meghan for your courage and leadership. We are all strengthened and inspired by you.” [Twitter]
- Lil Nas X’s new single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is out 3/26. [Instagram]
- Justin Bieber’s Justice will feature Daniel Caesar, Giveon, Khalid, The Kid LAROI, Dominic Fike, Burna Boy, BEAM, Chance The Rapper, and Benny Blanco. [Twitter]
- Mickey Guyton and Keith Urban will co-host the ACM Awards next month. [CMT]
- “Bodak Yellow” reached 10 million in sales, making Cardi B the first female rapper with a diamond single. [EW]
- Doja Cat released a video for her surging hit “Streets.” [YouTube]
- Maroon 5 and Megan Thee Stallion released a video for “Beautiful Mistakes.” [YouTube]
- T-Pain appears in a new Ruffles commercial. [YouTube]
- Dixie D’Amelio’s new single is out 4/9. [YouTube]
- BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment is changing its name to HYBE Corporation. [Variety]
- Travis Scott unveiled his new CACTI Agave Spiked Seltzer in a Grammys commercial with Eric Andre. [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME