His magnificent tone and supple range shines thanks to Rick Rubin’s production.
Chris Lo 2010-12-01
Of all pop’s odd couples, the recent partnership of renegade producer/Def Jam founder Rick Rubin and sprightly classico-pop vocalist Josh Groban might go down as one of the strangest. For UK listeners, Groban, whose multi-platinum US success has not quite translated on this side of the Atlantic, will be equally renowned for his instantly likeable guest appearance on Never Mind the Buzzcocks as his full-throated 2003 version of weepy anthem You Raise Me Up. Rubin taking the production reins of Groban's latest album, Illuminations, could be seen either as evidence of a young artist's yearning for serious credibility, or as more proof of a veteran producer's penchant for the eccentric.
After his production work for the likes of the Beastie Boys, Slayer and especially Johnny Cash, Rubin has earned a reputation for stripping back layers to expose his artists' core appeal. If this was the objective on Illuminations, the duo has achieved somewhat mixed results. As expected, Groban's vocals have been pushed to the very forefront of the tracks, where his magnificent tone and supple range can truly shine. Although nine years have passed since the LA-born singer's eponymous debut, his voice still emanates power tempered by impeccable control. From the wistful ruminations of Bells of New York City to Hidden Away’s romantic bombast, Groban's throat bends from baritone to tenor without any signs of strain, maintaining its caramel richness throughout.
But while the stripping-back process rightly shines a spotlight on Groban's powerhouse voice, it also mercilessly exposes his lack of songwriting experience. Illuminations represents the first time Groban has co-written the majority of an album, and on this evidence, the singer-songwriter mantle is an ill fit. Almost every track follows a swelling, strings-akimbo pattern that reduces the tracklist to a melange of cartoon melodrama, akin to any number of Disney musicals or Les Mis knock-offs. And the lyrics (sample: "The sweetest feeling I've got inside/ I just can't wait to get lost in your eyes") will make most listeners pine for the album’s foreign-language interludes. It’s telling that the only song that lyrically resonates is an effective imitation of Nick Cave’s embattled romanticism on a cover of Straight to You.
If Rubin managed to find the core of Groban, it’s a sad fact that what remains after the layers have been removed is an incredible vocalist and a one-note songwriter. Perhaps, given time, he will begin to write songs worthy of his voice. Until then, this is an album for the converted, destined to leave newcomers cold.
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