Review of Goon by Tobias Jesso, Jr.

There is something surreal and haunting about the photograph on the cover of Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso, Jr.’s debut album Goon. In it, Jesso’s face is partly obscured by darkness. The background looks like an out-of-focus rocky landscape hue-shifted into a bluish-green color. Tobias himself looks perfectly likable with his slightly sad eyes and his neutral expression. But the overall impression of the image is similar to the cover of John Lennon’s Imagine, which features an obscured image of one of the greatest artists of the previous century, and one who was taken to his grave far too soon.

Even more disturbing, Tobias Jesso, Jr. just sounds like the kind of guy who dies too young. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided he doesn’t actually die, but there’s something slightly ethereal in his performance on Goon, like he isn’t fully there. The illusion comes mostly from the low volume of the vocals in the mix on several of the songs and the slow balladry that forms the backbone of Jesso’s songwriting. The surprising depth of the sound also contributes, reminding of the texture-over-melody acoustic songwriting of folk-rock singer Nick Drake, who died tragically at just 27 in the early 70s. The lyrics, too, give gloomy impressions, dealing with deep reflections on love, life, and loss. On the album’s centerpiece “Hollywood,” Jesso repeats the phrase “I think I’m gonna die in Hollywood” over a brooding background and a plaintive piano part until avant-garde jazz overtakes the tune and sad church bells ring, like a New Orleans funeral procession if it was being heard from inside the coffin. I’m not sure there’s anything more morbid than that.

Goon isn’t all dark, though. Sometimes its ballads are romantic in a sweet, juvenile way, like in “The Wait” (which reminds heavily of Big Star’s “Thirteen”), or “For You.” Even on the latter though, made beautiful and bright by pattering drum patterns and cymbal crashes upon which Jesso builds his happiest vocal hook, there is something sad in Jesso’s voice. On the next track, “Crocodile Tears,” Jesso presents some inverted version of the personality he shows on the rest of the tracks, sarcastically belting out a “Boo-hoo-hoo” after delivering the dubious line “My baby, she loves to see me cry.” Then he follows the song with “Bad Words,” in which he reverts to his familiar self and pleads for forgiveness after a lover’s quarrel, sadly crying out, “come on home/ …baby” in his previously unheard upper register. “Leaving LA” is one of the best-written songs on Goon, despite having only five lines. It communicates in barely four sentences of conversation the pain of losing love to distance and in one line the almost unbearable solution to the heartbreak: “Move town, there’s nothing left around here without her.”

You wouldn’t think it from the simple opener, “Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” but strings and synths are used for far more than just atmosphere on this album. Many of the songs shift dynamics and instrumentation simultaneously to devastating effect. Just listen to “Leaving LA” and try not to be moved by that chorus of voices, the double-time rhythm, their collapse. Try even harder when Jesso builds the song back up in the outro, playing every happy piano part he can think of, only to give up and despair with the final repetition of that song’s aforementioned tear-jerking refrain. The second track, the easy highlight “How Could You Babe?,” is probably the album’s most dramatic song, and in it heartbreak is made beautiful by a Brill building pop arrangement that swells and summons forth a series of soulful drum hits every time Jesso prepares to belt out the song’s refrain.

For an album whose 12 tracks are almost all built on just a piano part (or sometimes an acoustic guitar) and Jesso’s voice, the variety on Goon is inspiring. Jesso’s voice barely ever sounds the same way in two different songs, for one thing. Even the way Jesso makes use of his piano is different in every song. On “For You” it’s like the Abbey Road finale in its powerful chord hits, and then on “Crocodile Tears” right after it’s more like the bouncing, playful style of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” from the same album, but hits a few more black keys than that tune’s major-chord murderousness. Paul McCartney would be flattered.

Especially if you aren’t a fan of singer-songwriter albums in general, Goon is a grower, but it’s worth every listen. Each play reveals new details, and the details are the essential thing in an album as lyrically deep and musically dense as this one. Here’s hoping that Tobias Jesso, Jr.’s life and career are as long and joyous as they rightly deserve to be, because if the other artists who have made music as pained and haunting as this are anything to go on, Jesso’s life could use a little spiritual protection.