Saturday, March 13, 2021

Review: Spaceman • Nick Jonas

If ever there were a textbook definition to an adequate pop star, Nick Jonas would meet the criteria. As the primary songwriter and most promising member of his blockbuster sibling trio, Jonas ricocheted off the back of purity ring-touting teenage stardom and into serviceable age-appropriate music by his early 20s. When we last heard a solo record from Jonas, he had rebounded from a break-up on Last Year was Complicated: While a proficient record at the time, it – like the self-titled effort before it and the Jonas Brothers record to follow – ultimately suffered in longevity from its noncommittal meandering between contemporary R&B and pop music.

His first solo record in five years, Spaceman leverages his marriage, life suspended in global quarantine, and super-producer Greg Kurstin to attempt a bolder statement. And despite a stellar early showing with "This is Heaven," a neon-lit synthpop love confessional that calls in a sax solo and a bold choral backing, the full record can't escape his taste for modesty. He once again sketches a rough outline of his peers and idols alike, then paints carefully within the lines to create a streaming-sized (but continuously mixed!) collage of fine rhythmic pop music dedicated more so to cosmetics than to the temporarily long-distance relationship with his wife that inspired it.

Admittedly, where his previous records failed, Spaceman succeeds: Written and produced in its entirety alongside Kurstin and songwriter Mozella, the release stabilizes his level of service and boosts his batting average. Almost every track feels comfortable aside its peers here: Kurstin's work with a drum machine and elastic synth samples ties many of the tracks together into the same sonic storyboard, providing a similar moody weightlessness, for example, to midtempo tracks like "Heights" and "If I Fall." Meanwhile, the more assertive "Delicious," a groovy number with a faux-brass hook, amplifies the same successful elements without blowing itself out of the record's framework.

The worst crimes committed on the record may be anonymity  "2Drunk" and "Sexual" could have been ripped from a Justin Timberlake record for all I know  and the occasional cockeyed line. "You could put me in a coffin, I'm always going to find your love," Jonas declares in what are somehow not the worst lines from "Death Do Us Part," by far the album's weakest point. In an act of mercy, it's cut to an interlude's length in favor of "Nervous," a better expression of his love via synth ballad. (Better yet in his power ballad catalog, however, is "Deeper Love," a close but more energized younger cousin to Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is.")

Jonas is still adequate, yes, but one adequate pop star does not a memorable musician necessarily make  or at least, that must be what he believes. In the most shameless instance of algorithm manipulation in recent history, Spaceman already has been succeeded on streaming services by Spaceman: Classics Edition, a bastardized greatest hits version of the record with his earlier radio hits shoved into the track listing. While the glorified playlist strategy compromises the record's integrity, it does remind us that Nick Jonas has produced a few incredible tracks. To be fair, he's done the same with Spaceman, but his centrist tendencies too often divert him from his ambitious aspirations.

Spaceman is available now under Island Records.

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