Nate Ruess 'Grand Romantic' Album Review: Junk Mail
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Armon Sadler and Ryan Middleton chat about Nate Ruess' new album Grand Romantic. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Carolyn Menyes: I feel like we've been working through the album cycle leading up to Nate Ruess' official solo debut Grand Romantic for a very long time now, so it just feels mostly like a relief that this album is finally here. Ruess is the lead songwriter for his band fun., so it makes a lot of sense that this whole record just feels like a slightly more grandiose version of that group. The builds, the dramatics, the vocals (obviously) are all there.
What is lacking? Hooks and payoffs. There's a lot of big music but I never feel like it actually goes anywhere, which is my first sort of initial reaction to this album. What are your first thoughts, dudes?
Armon Sadler: I definitely agree. Upon listening to this album and then going back to Some Nights and Aim and Ignite, the fun. sound is there. It also seems each album sticks very much to a specific theme, and this one was no different. I felt the album coming at us in two ways: happy, energetic songs and then slow ballads. I pictured an '80s couple driving down the highway in a convertible while listening to this album, but I doubt either one of you felt the same... ha!
Ryan Middleton: This is super rare for junk mail, but I think we are all on the same page here. It has the same fun sound, with Ruess's unique, big and bold voice soaring through your speakers, but there is just something missing. The elements that made fun so great -- the catchy hooks and the accompanying guitars or drums just don't equal the hit-power found in Ruess's past work. Could this be the product of not being part of a super group? Possibly, but the song-writing seems to be a bit lackluster.
Despite all of this, what are some highlights for you guys?
CM: This may be a boring review, because I agree on both of your points. Armon, you're not misguided in feeling like driving down a California highway circa 1985 with this album. The '80s have come back full force in pop music in the last few years, slightly guided by the music of fun., and this record totally continues that. This album is VERY 2015, even in its huge inconsistencies.
I also agree with your points, Ryan (as we just discussed IRL in the office). This album has all of the dramatics and noise of fun. without the more subtle details of other emotions or the hooks. My god, get Jack Antonoff back on this and away from Taylor Swift. I need something meaty and poppy to grab onto instead of this record.
So, with that being said -- and my God, I could go on about the drama of this record for weeks -- let me cherry pick some highlights, as you so kindly suggested. I really liked the touch of Beck on this album, even if that's a cheap cop out because it does not sound like the rest of the record. But, "What This World Is Coming To" adds some nice diversity, and I think Beck's soft vocal adds an interesting new layer to Ruess'.
What were your favorite moments, Armon? Did you generally like this record?
AS: Well for me personally, I like the way he tied the "Grand Romantic Intro" into the actual "Grand Romantic" track a little further down the tracklist. I like that he had the Intro and actual song more spread out. With Some Nights, the "Some Nights Intro" was followed right up with "Some Nights." Perhaps this was something Reuss wanted to do differently with his solo project and it worked in my opinion. I think "Grand Romantic" will be overlooked because it's so far down the tracklist and one of the slow ballads I mentioned, but it's among one of my favorite songs on the album. I listened to it and then heard the Intro creep its way in; it was a pleasant surprise. I'm also a big fan of "You Light My Fire" and "What This World Is Coming To" featuring Beck.
I generally enjoyed the record. I can listen to it all the way through and not skip a song, which I can't say for most albums. My music taste primarily lies in Hip Hop so it's an even bigger deal that I'm saying this. I think Nate Reuss could have done things better, as you guys pointed out. It's fun. without a couple of the group's elements, so perhaps that is him establishing his own sound as a solo artist? Whatever the case may be, a solid job.
Do you have a favorite song or two, Ryan? Do you like the songs he chose to release as singles?
RM: Yeah the image of the California drive down the coast is right on point. As someone who will be making that trek in almost exactly one month, I might have to load this album onto my phone to fire up the rental car's aux chord (though the chord may not survive the trip with all of the heat it will pump out).
The four singles that came from the album, "Nothing Without Love," "AhHa," "Great Big Storm" and "What This World Is Coming To" were good picks for Ruess and Fueled By Ramen as some of the more fun-esque sounding tunes.
"Great Big Storm" sounds like it could have been taken from Some Nights, which isn't bad and is possibly the closest to the big, grandiose hooks that we expect from a Ruess record. "Nothing Without Love" also has the same type of simple chorus and booming drums that one might expect from him, but with a little bit extra with the horns and piano. It was interesting that they left the soft ballads off of the pre-album singles list.
But some of my favorites are probably "Great Big Storm" and "What This World Is Coming To." It is easy to pick the singles, but the Beck addition really makes "What This World Is Coming To" really makes the record stand out musically as something much more complex and interesting sonically compared to the rest of the record.
CM: It's interesting to see the things that you guys like versus what I didn't like on this album. I'm a sucker for a good theme on an album, so the way that Ruess carried "Grand Romantic" throughout the album was pretty satisfying cohesion. I did not, however, care for the intro as a whole. It just sounded like a crappy children's choir at Christmastime, and I don't know, it took me out of the album before I even dove in.
The actual song "Grand Romantic" itself was more successful. It has the swell of strings in it, which offers up the cinematic effect Ruess is going for on this album but it actually works here. I love the super drippy emotion in his voice on that song too. I can just imagine weeping as he sings "I want you so bad." It kills me. That's an album highlight for me for sure, even though I don't like the secondary voice that comes in as much.
In general, the back of the album when Ruess pulls back on the grandeur and gets a little more ballad-y is strong. "Harsh Light" has this big sway to it, and I appreciate how it seems easy to chant along to it. The final track, "Brightside" is also a strong closer. It cools everything down and brings you back to Earth quite effectively.
Ryan, I'm glad you brought up "AhHa" because I need to talk to everyone about this song because it's maybe the most bizarre thing I've ever heard from a pop album. Ruess changes gears from this really rough intro to a soft ballad to a big, bombastic arena anthem all in the span of a minute. He also manages to quote his own fun. lyrics with "Some Nights" and he shout quotes from e.e. cummings. I give up on trying to understand what he was doing with that one. And it's a single! OMG!
AS: I share the same sentiments about "AhHa." It's definitely a standout among the more upbeat songs on the album. I can understand making that one of the singles, it'll play on the radio and be a big hit at concerts for several months to come. Very memorable track.
"It Only Gets Much Worse" is another song I feel will be overlooked. I could see it being a hit on the radio but it hasn't been released as a single. I'm a huge fan of it though, and I like how the back end of the album was primarily ballads, as Carolyn pointed out. They flow really well together.
I don't want to make it seem like this album is perfect, but I just don't have anything negative to say. Every album that any artist puts out, in my opinion, can be better and this one is no different. However, I don't have anything that I necessarily "dislike." I've got to comment on the two sides of this album again, as I feel artists who can master both upbeat music and ballads that evoke those emotions we all try to conceal, have a lot of longevity. Reuss is a name we could hear for a while.
RM: "AhHa" is a standout, but for a very different reason. It is almost comically strange to me. The track is almost laughing at itself and the "hook" sounds like what middle school bullies do when they make fun of a kid when they trip in the hallway at school. Maybe that doesn't happen anymore -- it has been a little while since those days.
The ballads give the album a two-sided feel to it, with the upbeat fun-influenced tracks and the softer, more personal tracks like "Grand Romantic."
One thing you look at with an album is how well it flows together from start to finish. While it may not have the strong overarching theme that some artists are able to weave together, sonically the transitions are pretty seamless and is an easy listen as a whole album.
While Nate Ruess is the focus of the album and that is how the marketing is geared (look at the music videos), how do you think The Band Romantic (his backing band) did on this one?
CM: I can't decide if I love or hate "AhHa" in its oddness... I think I edge more toward hate, but it's just too weird to purely detest. I don't even know.
The flow of this album is good. It neither feels like one hour-long song, nor is anything too jarring. I think that "What This World Is Coming To" sticks out a little too much, but it's actually my favorite song on the record, so I'm not mad at it.
Honestly, I haven't given a ton of thought into the work of The Band Romantic here, other than the fact that I love the band's name. I have a feeling Ruess was so involved in the writing of this actual music that they didn't have a ton of wiggle room, but the execution is on point. Most of these songs have several movements within them, and I don't think that's necessarily an easy task to take on. But, they follow along great.
AS: Yep, the backup band was solid. I didn't put much thought into their work either but again...I can't say anything negative about it. I'd have to agree with Carolyn and say Ruess probably took over 70 to 80 percent of all of the music writing. Whatever the case may be, the finished product was to my liking.
I'm interested to see what fans say. I'm sure those who love fun. will want to see what Ruess can do on his own. I have a feeling they'll be pleased.
RM: Yeah I liked the back up band. They probably toed the line of what Nate Ruess wanted with the song-writing, which you can hear as they rise and fall with the inflection of his voice. However the moments when they can do something a little different, with the strings, horns and piano is when the The Band Romantic really shines. It would be interesting to see how tight they sound live.
AS: Simply put: Grand Romantic is a good album; it's something I can listen to from start to finish, understand and perhaps even feel. Ruess captured the most of the fun. sound while also making the project his own. Kudos to him.
RM: Echoing my initial thoughts, as a complete piece of work, I thought Grand Romantic was a quality piece of work. It meshed well from start to finish and did not sound like one whole song, which can happen for albums that mesh too well. However the issue is that some of the tracks that go for that fun. style fall short of the big, ambitious, grandiose sound that the group become so well loved for. He hints at something for the future with the slower ballads and the song-writing is solid, but the epic hooks found on the best fun. songs are missing from Ruess. We will see how he progresses with his solo career, though knowing him, he may join another band in a two yeard.
CM: I feel as though Grand Romantic is a little overdone. There's so much buildup and grand gestures, but I think some of the emotion and some of the actual meet of what made fun. a successful alt to pop crossover is missing here. I really miss the presence of Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost. That being said, there are moments -- and they're mostly the softer ones -- that I can appreciate. I give this a C.