Nate Ruess has worn many hats throughout his musical career. For fans of his previous work: we knew the songs and high notes were there all along. We obsessed over every track his first band, The Format, ever released. We considered The Format legends in the indie scene. In 2008, Ruess teamed up with Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost, creating the electro-pop group, Fun. The group released a stellar debut album and followed it up with a sophomore release that launched them into superstardom, as well as the opportunity for co-writes and solo albums. Now Ruess is venturing even further into the pop world with his solo debut, Grand Romantic.
Grand Romantic sounds like it could be a Fun. album, at least the B Sides or tracks you only get on a deluxe addition. If Grand Romantic were a Fun. album–hell, even a Format album–it would be so much better. If it were a Bleachers album, it would be phenomenal. It is not that Grand Romantic is bad. The album has some really great moments. It just seems diluted. Lacking the energy and connection Ruess so often creates. Maybe it is growing older, co-writing with Pink or being a judge on some singing competition no one cares about. Perhaps I’m just bitter. Being a long time Ruess fan, I had so much anticipation surrounding this record. Grand Romantic is an album you will play in the background, while you’re somewhat busy and not paying much attention. It’s not the albums of his previous years–the steady stream of consistent work like Dog Problems and Aim and Ignite that long-haul fans have relished.
Grand Romantic opens with a choir intro, then bursts into the roaring track, “AhHa”. “AhHa” is all over the place, but in the best of ways. It feels like the follow up to Fun.’s “Some Nights”. Nate drops in heavy and insightful lyrics, “It’s for the best you didn’t listen / It’s for the best we get our distance.” When “AhHa” is over, you have to listen to it again–there is so much layering, so much going on, it is unlike anything Ruess has done before. “AhHa” is Grand Romantic at one of its finest moments, and confirms what we have known all along. The guy can write the hell out of a pop song.
“Nothing Without Love” is the lead single and follows “AhHa”. Ruess has called “Nothing Without Love” his favorite song he has ever written, which puzzles me, after feeling it is simply dull, and knowing what Ruess is and has been capable of. A top 40 radio ballad, it is contradicting lyrically, as is the album throughout, the singer seemingly more at peace with himself and happy, as opposed to the self-destructive man we are used to (and I sadly prefer).
Grand Romantic continues with “You Light My Fire”, a seemingly 2015 attempt at Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”, and I equally dislike both. “What This World Is Coming To” features Beck; more in the folk vein, this song is an all around treat with these two together. “Great Big Storm” finally breaks up the run of ballads. A heavy hitting, catchy chorus accompanied by soft verses, this track is one of the album’s better. We see glimpses of the lyrics we are accustomed to with Ruess, “I can’t stand myself / Or my legs as they run from the ones here to help.”
The album carries on with more ballad-esque tracks “Moment” and “It Only Gets Much Worse”. While making the album a little monotonous, “It Only Gets Much Worse” at least showcases Ruess vocally and just how stunning he is, belting notes over piano keys. “I didn’t mean to let it go / I didn’t mean to bruise / But I lost control / And what she said to me / It still echoes,” he sings out. “Grand Romantic” follows with Ruess stripped down and wailing, “I just wanted you so bad.” The title track takes everything the album is as a whole: building horns, ballads, choir-like vocals and Ruess, doing things differently while not straying too far from his roots to still seem familiar to old fans and attractive to new.
“Harsh Lights” is the next track and the most exciting. If “AhHa” is the follow up to “Some Nights”, then this is the counter to the monster hit “We Are Young”. Originally performed with Fun., and now finding its way onto Ruess’ solo album, “Harsh Lights” makes it seem okay to be vulnerable and hurt. “My eyes are drained from the one who got away / So tonight I’m going out / Tonight I’m gonna stay out.” Crashing choruses, “Harsh Lights” may be even more triumphant than “We Are Young”. “There’s such a fine line between the things you are / And the things that you’ve been,” he sings, a line that seems to perfectly tie in to where the musician has been and where he’s currently going.
The final track is “Brightside”, a slow build up over keys. “I never meant to set the world on fire / just wanted something you’d remember me by.” Grand Romantic closes much like it began–a little awkward, redundant and slow, but with moments of brilliance from a performer who has already accomplished so much he can afford (financially and reputation-wise) to make this album.