Myths revealed: Tobias Jesso Jr.’s ‘Goon’
Matthew Munhall | Tuesday, March 17, 2015
“You can’t miss Tobias Jesso Jr.,” the ads for Jesso’s debut album “Goon” proclaim. “He’s 6-foot-7.”
Jesso’s height is just one element of the myth that has built up around the 29-year-old singer-songwriter over the past year. The Vancouver native moved to Los Angeles and spent most of his early 20s trying to make it as a songwriter and guitarist. Then in 2012, he experienced a series of events in quick succession that left him heartbroken and dejected. His girlfriend left him, he was injured by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle, and he found out his mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
Reeling from these events, Jesso returned to his childhood home in Canada and took up the piano on a whim. He emailed his demos to former Girls bassist Chet “JR” White, who not only listened to the lo-fi recordings but was impressed. Jesso returned to the States to record with White, was signed to True Panther Records and began receiving plenty of buzz from the indie music press.
Despite his height and mythic backstory, Jesso’s music isn’t larger than life. “Goon” is an album full of intimate piano ballads about heartbreak and professional disappointment. The album’s 12 tracks are pretty sounding and earnest almost to a fault.
White, Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney and Ariel Rechtshaid handle production on the album and wisely stay out of Jesso’s way for the most part, allowing his songwriting to be the focus. “Goon” retains all the charm and simplicity of his early demos, only slightly polished up for release. Jesso’s piano playing and fragile voice are still the stars but are accented by defeated horn sections, lush strings, backing vocals and minimal percussion. Sometimes he’s backed by acoustic guitar — like on the short, breezy “The Wait” — but mostly, he’s tickling the ivories and pouring out his heart.
The highlights are often emotionally affecting, with the simplicity of Jesso’s songwriting striking a universal chord. The album’s centerpiece is the six-minute-long “Hollywood,” a song in which the narrator is left frustrated by the star-making machinery of LA. “I think I’m gonna die in Hollywood,” Jesso sings. He sounds absolutely defeated, like even the West Coast’s endless sunshine isn’t enough to outweigh the entertainment industry’s constant rejection.
The soulful “How Could You Babe,” with its gospel backing vocals and organ chords, mines Jesso’s heartbreak to heart-rending results. His voice is at its most pained on the track, rising to a wail that adequately expresses his despair.
The go-to reference points employed by critics in describing Jesso’s music are ’70s songwriters like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and John Lennon. The comparisons stick sonically — the production recalls lush instrumentation and foregrounded piano of the era’s records. Yet Jesso’s songwriting lacks the humor and cynicism that balanced out those artists’ sentimental streaks.
“Everyone that’s written about the record has made this connection to Lennon’s demos,” Jesso told Interview recently. “I was going for Paul, though.” The McCartney influence is all over “Goon,” especially on tracks like “For You” and “Leaving LA.” Jesso shares Macca’s knack for gorgeous melodies and heartfelt lyrics, and it seems inevitable that the Grammys will pair the two together for a performance sometime in the future.
By the end of a 47-minute album, however, this doe-eyed earnestness becomes somewhat exhausting. Even the sentimental Beatle could pen a song as funny and primal as “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” every once in a while. “Goon” would benefit from a change of pace or a little of the wit Father John Misty exhibited on “I Love You, Honeybear.” Yet overall, “Goon” is a strong showcase for Jesso’s songwriting, even if it doesn’t always quite live up to the myth.