Album Review: Tobias Jesso Jr.—“Goon”

By James Li

The easy, breezy sounds of 70s soft rock are back and stronger than ever in both the mainstream and the underground. Just look at the success of Vampire Weekend or HAIM, who borrow heavily from Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac, respectively. More tellingly, Steely Dan, the kings of yacht rock, are one of the highest billed acts in this year’s Coachella lineup. Goon, the piano-based debut album from Vancouver native Tobias Jesso Jr. is rougher around the edges, but it’s also heavily inspired by the 70s. Even the promotional posters and billboards for his album look like retro-style ads: “You can’t miss Tobias Jesso Jr. He’s six foot seven.”

Even before the release of Goon, Jesso has an impressive list of co-signs. Jesso passed his demo to J.R. White of Girls, and soon he got to record with Ariel Rechstaid (HAIM, Sky Ferreira), Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), and John Collins (The New Pornographers). Even more notably, Adele tweeted a link to his song “How Could You Babe,” which makes you wonder why his album even needed a press campaign in the first place.

Album cover of Goon

Album cover of Goon

Every feature and interview on Jesso touches on the same details of his backstory: in short, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, went through a break-up, a car crash, and his mother’s struggle with cancer, and moved back to Vancouver. His career arc so far is similar to those of other singer-songwriters like Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten, who also moved to a big city with dreams of making it big, before holing up back home. And like them, he turned his dejection into an impressive debut.

Slick retro marketing, celebrity co-signs, and sad backstory aside, Goon is an album with no pretensions. It’s well-recorded, owing to its impressive list of producers, but there’s almost a human quality in Jesso’s self-taught piano playing, such as his inconsistent stumbles over the chords. His singing is reedy, nasally, and, at times, off key – probably where the Randy Newman comparisons come from – but there’s a charm to it. Jesso’s voice and piano are the heart of every song, but added details bring them over the top. So, while Jesso’s strained pleas are the best part of “How Could You Babe,” the backing choir brings the song to life.

Goon draws deeply from Jesso’s experiences with “Los Angeles and failing and a breakup,”  and, even though he has to leave a city and a relationship, his reluctance comes through. “Can We Still Be Friends” is all about the bargaining stage of a breakup, clinging onto a relationship that’s already fallen apart. When Jesso sings, “I pray God help me, I done the best I could / But I think I’m gonna die in Hollywood” on “Hollywood,” he’s being chewed up by the city, but he’s not ready to be spit out. These lyrical themes are fitting for an album made by someone who was ready to give up.

A lot of critics are going to compare Jesso to 70s Los Angeles piano men like Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson, but to be honest, Jesso isn’t as clever as Newman or Nilsson, nor does he try to be. Jesso himself said that he isn’t familiar those artists, preferring to listen to modern pop acts like Adele and Sam Smith. Even if Goon sounds like a 70s soft rock album on the surface, it doesn’t sound like a deliberate pastiche, but a songwriter expressing himself the only way he knows how. (True Panther)

Listen: “How Could You Babe”

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