Review: Nate Ruess Only Gets Much Worse on ‘Grand Romantic’
Release Date: June 16, 2015
Label: Fueled by Ramen
If showbiz kids give a f—k about anything else, it’s their performances, and this nephew of a Broadway hoofer is a thick ham on rye with gorgonzola. As the lead singer of fun., Nate Ruess opened his mouth and out came fully-formed Expressionist librettos like “We Are Young,” in which he stood with one hand on the mic stand and the other waving at Madison Square Garden, first row. Ruess, whose jawline gives him the look of a David Johansen after months of Pilates, capped an impressive 2012 and 2013 with a sweet, implausible Pink duet.
Solo debut Grand Romantic dares you to imagine that Ruess could have come up with an alternative title. First, the good news: No one in the American Top 40 is attempting his combination of whimsy and the confessional. Ruess’ collaborator Jeff Bhasker can translate those addled visions, the peak of which is “Great Big Storm,” putting its drums through the “When the Levee Breaks” paces while strings saw away at Ruess’ self-esteem, peaking in the last third when a distorted vocal cuts through the crap like an analysand strong enough to give someone else advice.
The bad news: anyone in the American Top 40 could sing it better. With his penchant for long melody lines, sudden yelps, and adenoidal arias, Ruess is incapable of just leaving a phrase alone. Whatever he might claim in interviews, his influences are ghastly. On “Memories” he sounds like Peter Cetera, which is at least a break from a staggering assault by his karaoke dreams of “Carry on My Wayward Son”-era Kansas. I suppose the novelty of Ruess’ onomatopoetic hook in “AhHa” blasting an e.e. cummings quote to cinders is worth a mention.
Ruess’ songs are a puzzle: They contain no memorable lines but the arrangements act as if they do. When he remembers there are people with heart conditions in the audience, he modulates himself. The high, stacked harmonies on “What the World is Coming To,” like pan flutes blown in unison, evokes the Shins, aided by prickly guitar solos by none other than Beck (“You Light My Fire” also sports one). “It Only Gets Much Worse” rebukes positive thinking, albeit with less humor than I’d have wanted but also less melodic grace than expected.
With the Format in 2006, Ruess released Dog Problems, a collection of warped little psychedelic tunes that my fellow critic Brad Nelson called a “fake Jellyfish album” and in 2015 plays like an exploratory move by an artist finding his voice, a tombstone marking what had been and would never be. To predict how Grand Romantic will sell is dumb, and who cares? It’s the kind of album that Ruess fans will hug tightly. It may acquire a cult, worshiped by those Jellyfish acolytes, mentioned and shared, eroding cavils and winning hearts. But only some.