Going solo ain’t easy, even if it makes total sense.
As much as we all wanted that new fun. record, it became increasingly clear that we’re as far away from it as ever. If Nate Ruess’ constant pop radio co-writing and guest vocalist adventures weren’t evidence enough, the astonishing success of Jack Antonoff’s indie sensation Bleachers made it all too clear. Fun. may be a cash cow, but there’s currently too much at stake for the individual members’ rising stock.
I’ll admit that I went into Ruess’ solo debut Grand Romantic with a fair amount of skepticism. What does a solo record even look like for an indie rock martyr turned pop star? The picture is blurry at first, but with repeated spins, Grand Romantic turns into a surprisingly delightful, introspective tale.
Built on a foundation of tracks originally meant for that elusive fun. release, and constructed alongside Some Nights producer Jeff Bhasker, Grand Romantic opens with the grand introduction we’d expect, complete with chorus and bells. That display leads directly into “AhHa” – a track so reminiscent of “Some Nights” that it even includes a haunting refrain from the original that spills into the triumphant chorus of, “Oh lord, I feel alive / I’ve gone and saved my soul”.
This hollow glance at the past preceding a triumphant step forward resounds on nearly every level, with Ruess using every inch of his vocal range to power the anthem along. It’s a statement, to be sure, but it’s far from tired. Lead single “Nothing Without Love” follows suit with its hopeful cry, leaving the dark imagery of Some Nights in the rearview mirror.
Before you can label Grand Romantic as the same devil in a new dress, it flips on its head, swaying back and forth between bouncy indie pop and calm piano ballads; joyful noise and painful reflection. Ruess even throws in a few new tricks for good measure, to varying results.
“What This World Is Coming To” is a folk-inspired duet with Beck that is instantly irresistible. Their harmonized chorus of “So let’s get high here in the moonlight / Even the stars go right over our head / I think I’m gonna shine here in the afterlife / Leaving the fight for peace of mind instead” is an instant highlight of 2015. “Moment” is a deep and personal 80s inspired ballad, a sincere glimpse inside a private journal.
On the flip side, “Great Big Storm” has potential as an uplifting, foot stomping track, but falls flat during its repetitive chorus. “Harsh Light” sounds like a Some Nights holdover that doesn’t quite have the same spark. However, to both Ruess and Bhasker’s credit, even songs that fail to fly high don’t sound out of place on Grand Romantic, and the album flows along purposefully.
Even when Ruess takes a dark detour on the painful “It Only Gets Much Worse”, he carries along his sonic sensibilities that keep the track from weighing things down. A tinkling piano and chirping strings carry him even as he sings, “I didn’t mean to let you go / I didn’t mean to bruise but I lost control”. Things come full circle when the album closes with the string-infused and optimistic “Brightside”.
What begins as a familiar friend becomes an animal all its own – Grand Romantic captures Nate Ruess at his most vulnerable, and perhaps his most daring. It may not fill the void left by the disappearance of fun., but Ruess doesn’t seem all that concerned. He shouldn’t be. He and Antonoff have both capitalized on opportunity and appear content to explore new ground while inviting us all along for the ride.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.
Nice review Kiel. 🙂