Nick Jonas’ ‘Spaceman’ Is Pop Music Comfort Food That Takes Few Risks
It’s hard to read the title of Nick Jonas’ “Spaceman” and not immediately think of the doctor of the same name (pronounced Spah-CHEM-in) played by Chris Parnell on “30 Rock,” but a reference like that would be far too uncool to inspire this collection of songs (much less the man who made it). After almost 20 years as a singer, the Jonas Brother and sometimes solo artist has firmly graduated to a level of unassailable celebrity, bolstered both by a flourishing recording career and quickly growing movie stardom. Jonas has now turned his latest album into nothing less than a cultural event. But working with top-tier producer Greg Kurstin (Sia, Adele, Beck) and songwriter Maureen “Mozella” McDonald (Miley Cyrus, Madonna), Jonas’ pedigree is so well-established at this point that good music feels almost like a foregone conclusion — and in a way, a little boring, with highlights that come when he makes choices that veer away from formula into weirder, and dorkier, territory.
Musically, the album shares quite a bit in common with Jonas’ previous work, this time updated with a dollop of 1980s influence but otherwise the same blissful, effortless r&b that nimbly leap-frogs between tempos but unifies beneath an umbrella of sophistication and refinement. The first two tracks “Don’t Give Up On Us” and “Heights” flow seamlessly into one another, the former reflecting on long-distance love (“When I’m here all by myself / I can’t help wondering / Are you loving someone else? / I keep thinking / Oh, I should be there”) and the latter about the difficulties of reconnecting (“It’s always a scary thing / When your love’s so high, you’re bound to fall together”). The songs are as pleasant as they are interchangeable, with Jonas’ honeyed falsetto punctuating the moments of deep feeling that have been arranged with an almost algorithmic precision.
But at the end of “Heights,” a brief melodic detour — sort of an interlude, but not quite — hints at a different, provocative direction that your ear wants to follow, but Jonas abandons. Instead, he cruises onto the title track, a song reportedly inspired by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” that he wrote as a metaphor for the quarantine; it’s always a risky proposition for a young artist to compare his poetic visions to those of his iconic predecessors, but he thankfully does not embarrass himself, even if it’s doubtful that lyrics like “Mask off minute I get home / All safe now that I’m alone” will age well once things return to normal. “2Drunk” continues to explore this slightly-too-literal exploration of pandemic living — again, it’s charming, catchy stuff, but there’s nothing specific or unique enough here to elevate it above, well, any average person’s livejournal entry (“Turn the TV off, make the bed / Oh my God, it’s five, once again… All my friends are home, so am I / So I drink alone, justified”).
“Delicious,” inspired by ‘80s luminaries Huey Lewis and Peter Gabriel, pulses with a different kind of life than its predecessors, especially with a digital horn section punctuating the homogenic cool of the rest of the instrumentation. But hopes for a Mark Ronson-style live band detour are quickly dashed, even as Jonas does a convincing approximation of the theme song for an imaginary comedy about a gawky teen going after his dream girl. Jonas told Apple Music that Kurstin worked painstakingly to make the electronic instruments sound real, but what would have made this a much more interesting song is if they had really gone back to the midi keyboards of the era and create something more akin to Trevor Horn’s work, totally plastic but bursting with vitality. Across the record, songs seem to go two by two, and “This Is Heaven” pairs perfectly with “Delicious” thanks to a saxophone solo at the end that Steve Winwood will probably envy if he ever hears it. To be fair, Kanye West and The Weeknd both reclaimed ultimate ‘80s relic Kenny G and deemed him retroactively cool, but it’s these anachronistic flourishes that kick the album out of its polished rhythms and hint at something with more personality, if also potentially less commercial cache.
The watery synthesizers and deeply submerged bassline on “Sexual” owe a tremendous debt of inspiration (and possibly some songwriting royalties) to Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It,” but it’s by far the album’s best track, a mid-tempo lovemaking jam that absolutely oozes with sensuality. He tries to marry the romantic to that (literally) sexual vibe with “Deeper Love,” a song whose chorus seems to have ingested Winwood’s “Higher Love” and tried to find a way not to get tagged for plagiarism, but the bigger problem is that Jonas’ sentiments are just completely unoriginal with or without the overlap between his and the earlier song. He told Apple music that he considers this a big soaring anthem, but a designation like that only means something if the artist makes a truly big swing, and risks something, and unfortunately Jonas doesn’t.
“If I Fall” is Jonas’ “I’m On Fire,” and if it cribs the nighttime romanticism of Bruce Springsteen’s classic ballad, he actually does manage to make that vibe his own. But it’s the rogue keyboards on “Death Do Us Part” that suggest the more idiosyncratic but no less appealing music that Jonas could be making, but isn’t; other than the line “This is caviar with some Pringles” (and quite frankly, go man go with these bizarre analogies!), the only shortcoming to his ode to wife Priyanka Chopra is its brevity, cut off abruptly after just two minutes. Unfortunately, he closes with “Nervous,” a line-drive love song he’s written a dozens times before and probably will write another dozen of in the future — again, there’s nothing in particular that’s bad or wrong about it, just innocuous and unchallenging, for him or for his audience.
Ultimately, Jonas’ latest will appeal to his fans and keep him on the top of the charts, and that’s more than a lot of artists can accomplish, for as long as he already has. But for better or for worse, “Spaceman” is anodyne pop music whose edges expose what he is truly capable of, that could give his career not just longevity but true depth, if he were ever to venture outside of the familiar and comfortable bubble of success that he’s created for himself.
“Spaceman” releases on March 12 on Apple Music.