Last year may have been complicated for Nick Jonas, but the verdict on his new album is pretty simple: you ask, he delivers.
Nick Jonas’ second studio effort (third, if you count his childhood debut released before his brothers joined in on his career ambitions) doesn’t impress nor disappoint; it simply entertains and meets the expectations its self-titled predecessor established in 2014. It’s an unsurprising but unabashedly solid pop album, replicated the marriage between slick R&B with poppy dance beats that made his last album an unexpected pleasure. And while the subject matter is a little more personal and specific this time around (he mines his often disregarded relationship with Miss USA Olivia Culpo for material), Last Year Was Complicated is a seamless transition from where Jonas left us last.
It’s refreshing that Jonas chooses to stick with what works at a time when many of his pop peers seek reinvention so desperately that they’re willing to sacrifice authenticity. In stark contrast to recent releases like Fifth Harmony’s 7/27, Jonas seems right at home on this record. Whether he wants to sound wounded while destroying furniture and memories on “Chainsaw” or cocky and seductive on “The Difference”, his versatile falsetto is always effective.
Most importantly, he sounds like he’s having fun. Jonas has never been particularly convincing as the swaggering, chest puffing character he invented in his music, and no amount of playful crotch fondling can convince me that he’s anyone but the wet blanket drooped over himself in the backseat on a recent installment of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, but he’s never had more charisma than when he quotes Beyoncé and asserts, “Ah, shit! Throw some bacon on it,” in the same breath.
Musically, he takes few risks, only going off course with the tropical house elements on “Close” and the 90s dance beats on “Comfortable”. While his contemporaries like Zayn and Ariana Grande have spent 2016 straying off trendy paths in favor of more artistic pastures, Jonas chases hits. The problem is there really aren’t any.
Every track feels like an angled attempt to recreate his breakout singles “Chains” and “Jealous”. In fact, the men responsible for those songs, Jason Evigan and Sir Nolan, respectively, are behind the majority of the songs here. Together, they craft songs that could have easily been handled by the Justins of pop music. “Voodoo” captures the second-hand magic of a Timberlake-Timbaland collaboration while “Touch”, with its catchy guitar-driven melody, has Bieber written all over it.
Unfortunately, none of these songs truly duplicate the bangers they’re emulating. In fact, Last Year doesn’t have any sort of bona fide hit to anchor it. The aforementioned lead single “Close”, which features Tove Lo, is about as lukewarm as the intimacy problems discussed in its lyrics and the Big Sean-assisted “Good Girls” feels as dated as its slut-shaming message (“When did all these good girls decide to be bad? / Dancing up on the table, getting back at your dad”). Even still, the album doesn’t need an obvious radio smasher to be enjoyable when it has a steady stream of gratifying tracks.
Last Year is made even more intriguing by the fact that nobody seemed particularly invested in Jonas’ relationship with Culpo when it happened, and certainly nobody cares now. Jonas can be as vague or specific, as mournful or bitter as he wants, a luxury he would not have had on a record about his split from an ex like Miley Cyrus. “I never met a beauty queen I didn’t like,” he croons on “Comfortable”. Aside from that direct reference to Culpo and her crown, the album revels in anonymity as Jonas zips through the stages of a breakup. He celebrates the single life and his newfound personal freedom on “Bacon”, but on “Unhinged”, a ballad with shades of John Mayer, he takes responsibility for letting their relationship sink: “You’re not the first to try and diagnose what’s wrong with me / I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hard to please.”
Jonas didn’t make any grand promises with Last Year Was Complicated, and so his latest release doesn’t disappoint. Even without any standout tracks that seem destined for radio overplay, the plush album offers a consistently enjoyable listening experience. Jonas may not yet have what it takes to be a pop king, but he has just enough to hang in there.