Nate Ruess’ Solo Debut ‘Grand Romantic’ Is Better and Brighter Than Its Singles: Album Review
Nate Ruess has been a busy frontman for nearly 15 years -- the first half spent with pop-punk trio The Format, and the rest with Fun., whose surprise Grammy-winning breakthrough in 2012 turned him into a star. The latter's big-belted, blue-collar anthems "We Are Young" and "Some Nights" made the 32-year-old the helium-voiced hero of the post-millennium set, offering a heartwarming alternative to overproduced pop fare. The success poised the trio's members for even greater artistic heights -- as already shown by Bleachers, bandmate Jack Antonoff's acclaimed Springsteen-goes-to-Sweden solo project.
So it was troubling, then, when the first two previews of Ruess' solo debut, Grand Romantic, were singles "Nothing Without Love" and "AhHa," whose cathartic lyrics about self-discovery amid crumbling relationships were marred by cloying melodies and grating, borderline-shrill vocals that sounded like Ruess had been filtered through a siren. Could Ruess without Fun. be less, well, fun?
As it turns out, not quite. For the rest of Grand Romantic, Ruess reteams with Fun.'s Some Nights producer Jeff Bhasker, who helps Ruess rein in the melodrama to produce some of his most affecting work. "Brightside" is a glass-half-full guide to the brokenhearted. Beck shows up for "What This World Is Coming To," a warm, Laurel Canyon sunrise of a duet, while piano ballad "It Only Gets Much Worse" hides a pessimistic message in the same musically optimistic vibe that made Ruess' Pink collab "Just Give Me a Reason" a Hot 100 No. 1. And best of all is "Harsh Light," a lighter-waving self-acceptance song ("We all got scars," he sings) that could assure Ruess a future beyond Fun., The Format or any other project he pursues.
Yes, Ruess confesses in "AhHa" to suicidal thoughts, and heartbreak is a recurring theme, but Grand Romantic has some moments more danceable than dour. "You Light My Fire" is a chipper, Hall & Oates-inspired jam about closing down the town with a new crush ("We're not as young as we'd like to be/You're about to get the best of me"). Ruess can still make an impact without his Fun. bandmates -- although he may want to talk to them about his singles choices.
This story originally appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard.