Tobias Jesso Jr.: Goon

Scott Wallace
13th Mar 2015

True Panther Sounds, 2015

No, that's not the theme song from Cheers that opens Tobias Jesso Jr.'s debut album. The singer and pianist's smartly deployed quotations of the instantly-recognisable melody, though, create the same sense of welcoming warmth that Cheers' iconic opening did. "Can't Stop Thinking About You" is emblematic of the whole album - easygoing, uncomplicated and eminently approachable, but with a slight undercurrent of heartache or anxiety.

The Vancouver native is a multi-instrumentalist who only started playing piano, the instrument heard more on Goon than any other aside from Jesso's soft and sad voice, at the age of 27, which was less than three years ago. As such, his playing is simple, sticking to blocks of chords and tiny trills, the perfect accompaniment for his rough and unpolished singing. He can still surprise, though; just check out the last chorus of "How Could You Babe" where the spurned singer raises his voice to a spine-tingling howl.

Texture is added by some famous friends that Jesso' s made since his raw home recordings started making the rounds in mp3 form early last year. Production is handled by indie-rock heavyweights like retro rockers The Black Keys' Patrick Carney, John Collins of Canadian indie rockers The New Pornographers, and Sky Ferreira and Vampire Weekend producer Ariel Rechtshaid. Danielle Haim of family band Haim also adds her steady rhythmic chops to "Without You."

"Without You," is the song that most resembles one of the main comparisons that has been thrown at Jesso - Harry Nilsson. It even shares a title with one of Nilsson's most well-known songs. Jesso is far simpler than that noted eccentric, though. He's a more relatable presence on record, somewhat like Randy Newman without the mean streak.

But that's not to say that Goon resembles the bleached sunniness of Newman's contributions to Toy Story. There is a real, beating heart behind all these songs, even when they are embellished with strings as on "Can We Still Be Friends" or finger-picked acoustic guitar on the absolutely lovely teenage romance story "The Wait" where Jesso shyly asks "can I take you on a date?"

On this record, Jesso is often wearied, wounded, sorrowful and self-deprecating, particularly on first single "Hollywood" (key lyric: "Everybody lies in Hollywood") where the song is eventually taken over by the clamour of discordant horns, but he balances it with genuinely sweet and sometimes playful moments. Back-to-back, "For You," and "Crocodile Tears" create magic out of jaunty piano pop, with the latter even indulging in some tongue-in-cheek fake crying.

Toward the end of the record, it's like Jesso is coming out of his shell, with the record's pinnacle being "Just a Dream," a heartfelt and very personal ode to his family and their future. If he had filled this record with the downcast ballads that originally brought him and his talents to light, it would not be even half as exciting and fulfilling. Like all the best singer-songwriters, Jesso has revealed many facets of his personality and the results are riveting.

Perhaps it's not the most original record - in listening to this record you will hear the aforementioned Nilsson and Newman, but perhaps also John Lennon, Big Star, Van Dyke Parks and even The Beach Boys amid the sun-soaked harmonies and antique keys of "Leaving LA" - but that doesn't matter when Jesso's song-writing chops are this strong. Not every song is an absolute stunner, but quite a few of them are and none of them are bad by any measure.

If you give it time, this is the kind of record that will impress you on first listen, but even more when you return to it. On Goon, Tobias Jesso Jr. has created something so warm and so fully-formed that you can live in it. It's not hard to imagine every single one of these songs being someone's favourite. On closing track "Tell the Truth," surrounded by chiming guitars and swelling strings, Jesso urges "Why don't you tell the truth sometime? You know you should." Take his advice; his honesty is perhaps his greatest asset, and it had resulted in this remarkable record.