In a still-young 2021, the ubiquity of Nick Jonas is stunning. Along with coaching duties on NBC’s singing competition “The Voice,” Jonas has already appeared as host and guest of “Saturday Night Live,” will release his Lionsgate film “Chaos Walking” momentarily, is prepping for the role of Frankie Valli in a streaming theater version of “Jersey Boys,” appears as a narrating actor on Apple TV Plus drama mystery “Calls” starting March 19 and, this Monday, joins his wife, actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas to announce 2021’s Oscar nominations.
So busy is he that his own fam, Jonas Brothers’ Kevin Jonas, made a surprise appearance during Nick’s SNL monologue to joke, “Are we good?”
So. Is he?
Look no further than Nick Jonas’ “Spaceman” album for the answer. Then, imagine if Jonas had only utilized all that time spent on goofing around with Blake Shelton, or career-building busy work, on a new solo album that wasn’t merely semi-soulful and often just listless.
A Nick Jonas solo project differs from any work with Kevin and Joe in that it is more spacious with zero chance of power pop, and never quite as cluttered as having three brothers’ ideas of rhythm or desire for guitars in the mix. If we go back to to 2014’s “Nick Jonas” and 2016’s “Last Year Was Complicated,” it’s clear this solo bro digs his pop on the sensual, electro-soul and sleek club tip, baring lyrics rippling with references to a sensitive but occasionally salacious lover-man within.
“Spaceman’s” chic layering and synthetic sheen aren’t quite as glossy as the sound on those predecessors. Producer Greg Kurstin carries over a pre-sequencer ’80s vibe from his recent mix for the Foo Fighters’ “Medicine at Midnight”; pillowy analog synths and cloudy, new romantic choruses are the order of the day. All things synthetic and analog lend ballads such as the title track and the falsetto-laden “Heights” a faux airiness, the likes of which make patients in hospital settings comfortable and gave the likes of Naked Eyes and OMD their careers.
It’s not exactly ambient, but not exceptionally proactive – and, problematically not too melodically provocative – as Jonas and Kurstin experiment with soft, amorphous floating vibes for the vocalist to loll upon. That’s in stark contrast to the Jonas Brothers’ sound, which has always been exacting and precise. Think of their 2019 smash “Sucker,” and the manner in which the trio interacted with that cut’s stammering pulse. That’s stopwatch-pop of the highest, most contagious order.
Through “Spaceman,” Jonas’ sighing highs and delicious falsetto do sound freer than ever., especially when paired with a spare piano or breezy synth on “Don’t Give Up on Us.” When, on “Heights,” he intones, “We don’t need to get so heated / Just trying to talk / Forget about the he-said-she said,” his vocals flit, fly and punctuate. Maybe making movies is paying off as he now understands dramatic enunciation better than ever.
But then again, enunciation without deep emotion or the energy of a payoff hook takes him and the listener nowhere. And this is where the problems of “Spaceman” begin.
The problem with a cloud is that you can’t dig a hook into it; you can’t cut into it with a rich and prickly chorus. It just blows away. Take the strummed, thumpy “Deeper Love,” a song co-credited to Foreigner’s Mick Jones for its subtle nod to “I Wanna Know What Love Is”: Even after multiple listens, it’s hard to find anything to adore about or attach to it, save for Jonas’ pleasant croon. The same thing goes for the drifting, mid-tempo “This is Heaven” and the upbeat “2Drunk.”
There is, maybe inevitably in the time of COVID, a low-level anxiety to all of “Spaceman’s” proceedings, based on 2020’s universal sense of cloistered isolation and the horrors of bigot-based politics. Maybe i’s a noble thought to try to bring that in here, but a title track that goes “TV tells me what to think / Bad news, maybe I should drink” and “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” signifies nothing.
For a guy whose sly romanticism as a vocalist is a calling card, Jonas’ lyrics are tin-eared, sometimes to the point of weirdness. A lover has a body “drippin’ in definition” in the awful “Delicious,” which doesn’t benefit any more from its Prince nods and too-slick horn charts than it does its words. In an off-kilter, rhythm-heavy ballad dedicated to his wife, “Death Do Us Part.” Jonas makes references to eternity and Dracula, while also comparing their relationship to “caviar with some Pringles.” Is that a thing? Is Priyanka OK with this?
While maybe you can reach to appreciate that mildly twisted a culinary blend, a throwaway moment like that — and so many other bits of “Spaceman,” where throwaways were not required — might make you question Jonas’ deeper emotional commitment to this project. Which is a shame, as his voice has never sounded more on-point, and the surrounding opulent sonics have never allowed it such freedom. The album’s true possibilities, meanwhile, are lost in space.