Is Nick Jonas still aiming his act at the Jonas Brothers' target teen-'n'-tween audience... or at their parents? That's the question you might ask after hearing the youngest JoBro's first solo album, Who I Am. ("Solo" may or may not need an asterisk next to it, since the billing for this album and tour goes to a group name, Nick Jonas & the Administration.) You may recall the famous blues lyric "The men don't know, but the little girls understand." Nick is in such a consciously throwback vein, you might want to reverse that famous equation back, to account for the music's boomer-friendliness: The little girls may not know, but their middle-aged aunties and uncles will understand.
And what there is to understand is this: Nick Jonas is reinventing himself, at the advanced age of seventeen and a half years old, as a soul man. The Jonases have always been a little bit retro for contemporary teen idols, mind you, but this is a slightly different, even more retro brand of pop revivalism. On the brother group's best album, 2008's A Little Bit Longer, they had perfected the frantic power-pop style of the late '70s and early '80s, and seemed on the verge of becoming a more earnest Cheap Trick for modern youth. But they more or less abandoned that style on their last album, and it wasn't quite clear what Nick, the creative mastermind of the trio, was going for. Now it's clear: He wants to revert back past late '70s new wave to early '70s pop-R&B. What a difference a few years make, when you're time-traveling to the recent (but still before you were born) past, right?
Jonas has said repeatedly that he's a huge Elvis Costello fan, and he did a joint Q&A with Costello in Rolling Stone a couple of years ago. And when it came time to explain the "...& the Administation" name he chose for his backup band, he referred to his fondness for Elvis Costello & the Attractions. So I had some hope he might be trying to make this side project a stab at making an adolescent My Disney-Radio-Ready Aim is True. But taste in ampersand-group names aside, it turns out that Who I Am couldn't rely any less on his Costelloian instincts. He's relying on another guy with glasses that he's hooked up with before: Stevie.
Yes, young Nick is determined to make his wonder years sound like his Wonder years.
Not that he's aping just one guy or even just one style, but the era he wants to evoke is unmistakable. The album opens with "Rose Garden," the tale of a girl who grew up in tough circumstances, the toughness designated by... wah-wah guitar! By the third track, "Olive & an Arrow," it's clear we will be in for heaping doses of Wurlitzer organ and little or no synthesizer. He does actually wait till track 8, "State of Emergency," to introduce what sounds distinctly like a Stevie-esque clavinet, although the earlier "Last Time Around," which is based around funk guitar instead of keyboards, has a very Wonder-struck vocal hook. "In the End" is a very subdued, bluesy ballad that has Nick calling out "Take it, Tommy" to keyboard player Tommy Barbarella, and you won't be surprised to know that the piano solo that follows is (to these ears) all about the Fender Rhodes. Several of the players are alumni of Prince's old bands, so it's surprising that Jonas doesn't make much effort to cop from the man from Minneapolis--instrumentally, that is. Vocally, his falsetto leaps and occasional yowlings are right out of the Purple Handbook.
How deeply felt is all this? Emotionally, Jonas is on about his hundredth song about being betrayed by some young femme fatale, so either he has had an active love life full of opportunists, or he is still just milking one very bad third-grade experience. It doesn't all sound like schoolboy conjecture, though: When he sings "I want someone to love me, for who I am," in the title song and first single, it seems pretty clear he's been loved for who he isn't at some point or another, and the stricken-dead sentiments of "Vesper's Goodbye," although a little drama-queen-ish, convince me that whatever else he is borrowing from his elders on this album, it's not somebody else's broken heart. The closing number, "Stronger (Back on the Ground)," moves beyond the tropes of romantic torture into possible gospel territory.
And musically? I've always hated to grade on the age curve, because there are enough young people doing good work that "pretty good for a teenager" doesn't cut it anymore. (And I've maintained that A Little Bit Longer held up just fine against the work of much more veteran power-pop bands.) Yet Jonas is leaping into such mature styles here that I am inclined to cut him a bit of a break here, when the results are only moderately and not quite overwhelmingly successful. If a 30- or 45-year-old had made this record, there are things we would like about it and things we'd consider hackneyed. But a 17-year-old? Come on.
We've already come to think of Jonas as a veteran, since the Jonases had four studio albums before this. But that shouldn't get in the way of some astonishment that a fellow of this age even has these instincts, let alone will follow them--possibly to his own commercial detriment, as these sounds may feel a little peculiar to the "Party in the USA"-trained ear. Natural talent aside, Jonas deserves credit for being smart enough to rip off the past, and also smart enough to do it in subtle enough ways that the references and influences won't be quite so blatant as I've made them sound.
The danger for young master Jonas is that, as seriously as he takes music, he's on a career carousel that will encourage him to indulge himself as a multi-hyphenate at the cost of being an artist. He's spoken of squeezing this album in during a two-week break last year--which makes you want to grade it even higher on the curve, but also makes you wonder what he could have done if he'd devoted more time to the project. He put the band on the back album sleeve, to sell it as a true group project, but by his own admission only met them as they were going into the studio. Something may have to be sacrificed if he really wants to emulate his musical heroes.
(That said, I'm hesitant to suggest he call off his acting career, because JONAS, the Disney Channel sitcom, is actually a pretty funny series. And miraculously, they even figured out what to do on it with Nick's non-smiling, earnest persona, versus his brothers' comedic goofiness... which was: have fun with and play off that very too-soulful-for-this-world quality.)
It's always tempting to compare the teen idols of today with the ones of yesteryear, particularly among those who think they're doing today's young stars a favor by pointing out that Svengali-driven fluff has always been among us. And certainly there are a lot of terrific pop records being made by Disney-derived singers like Miley, Demi and Selena, who don't have strong artistic temperaments and are only as good as their collaborators, which is often very good indeed and sometimes not so.
But what we do have now that we didn't in the Bobby Sherman era is a couple of teen auteurs, in the form of Nick Jonas and Taylor Swift. (Taylor just graduated from that category by turning 20, but she's counted for the last four years.) These two will be around the music scene in some capacity for the next couple of decades whether you like it or not. I suggest older music listeners opt for the former, because their combination of DIY career independence and reliance on solid musical traditions bodes well for the future, in a time when there aren't always many encouraging signs. One young man or woman alone does not the future of music make, but listening to Who I Am, I'm again encouraged to believe that the kids are all right, after all.