To cut through and leave a lasting impression of Nick Jonas, the artist, would require a vision much bolder than what this album has to offer.
To those paying attention, Nick has long been known as the most ambitious of the brothers Jonas—the de facto bandleader, whose outsize aspirations drove them to their highest late-aught heights, and then over the edge to their breakup in 2013. In adulthood, Nick is certainly the most ubiquitous of the trio: Catch him on the big screen colonizing space, on the small screen doling out pop star wisdom to contestants on The Voice, on Broadway, in your local liquor store peddling branded tequila, and, of course, in the studio. Including Spaceman, his latest, Jonas has four solo albums to his name. Between the two of them, his brothers have just one.
Jonas is rich, famous, hyper-visible—a member of a class whose behavior over the past year has arched many an eyebrow. In the throes of pandemic, celebrities have flubbed efforts to boost morale, and failed to disguise the ways that wealth—and the healthcare, real estate, mobility, etc. that it brings—mitigated the need to modify their lifestyles in the interest of public health. Still, relatability is a virtue in pop music, so Jonas approached Spaceman with an eye to shared experience. When, on the album’s first single and title track, he sings, “Mask off minute I get home/All safe now that I’m alone,” it’s clear that he’s not speaking metaphorically.
Spaceman is divided into neat quarters, each with a distinct theme: distance, indulgence, euphoria, and commitment. Jonas has waxed poetic about the significance of the chapters, pegging each to the broader pandemic experience. The first three tracks explore the emotional toll of social isolation; the next two, the coping mechanisms he employed to deal with it. The “euphoria” segment proposes an antidote to the pain, and the final chapter, “commitment,” doubles down on that antidote (spoiler: it’s love). This is all a bit self-help-y. It also scans as an after-the-fact effort to make the album more topical, when its material is actually quite straightforward, and doesn’t warrant this sort of explanation. Using Nick’s liner notes to decode Spaceman feels a bit like cheating on the Monday crossword.
He needn’t try so hard. There’s enough to like on this record, at least initially. With co-writer and executive producer Greg Kurstin—a champion of pleasurable, unchallenging pop, whose past clients have included Maggie Rogers, Maren Morris, and three-fifths of One Direction—Jonas concocts a gaseous synth-pop sound swollen with reverb, punctuated with Phil Collins-style drum fills, and elevated by liberal application of falsetto. The space theme enters the mix via futuristic blips and fragmented radio signals. Modulating synths gracefully bridge gaps between songs, demonstrating interest in the album format beyond its potential as a vessel for singles (though continuity goes out the window on Spaceman’s “Classics Edition,” which interpolates the four biggest hits from Jonas’ previous records into the new material).
There are particular bright spots in the “indulgence” chapter, which ducks the album’s overall self-seriousness. “Delicious” is a juicy slice of blue-eyed funk, the sort that Jonas might have aspired to when he recruited core members of Prince’s New Power Generation to back him on 2010’s Nick Jonas & the Administration. “2Drunk” lands lightly, and with a wink; Jonas sets a delightful scene (“Now I’m dancing in the kitchen/Breaking all the dishes/Breaking all the rules that I set myself”) and gamely makes himself the butt of the joke (“I think I just hit my stride/’til I wake up and hate my life”).
He can’t sustain the buzz, though. In the morass of the album’s second half, we get “Deeper Love,” a song that, despite its title, doesn’t quite grasp the profundity of lifetime commitment. “I wanna know what it’d be like to know what I believe in/I wanna find it in your eyes,” Jonas sings, ambivalently. He’s 28 and married, but still relies on eye contact as a locus of stability, the same way he did on the Jonas Brothers smash “When You Look Me in the Eyes”—initially penned for his first solo album, which he released at age 12. If he’s is trying to light a fire with “Sexual,” he smothers it with the ham-handed lyric, “You put the sex in sexual.” The song namedrops Marvin Gaye, but has no place alongside “Sexual Healing” or “Let’s Get It On” in the hallowed canon of horny jams (though the electric sitar is a cute nod to wife Priyanka Chopra’s Bollywood roots).
The dud parade marches on: The placid synth of “If I Fall” is soothing, but the song doesn’t hold water conceptually. Jonas is ostensibly singing about his current and forever love, but pretzels the premise by looking ahead to the next: “If I fall again/It’d be the last time.” What? “Death Do Us Part” is genuinely the record’s sexiest song—Jonas’ delivery is cool and relaxed, his ad libs additive—but verses comparing wedded bliss to assorted snacks (watermelon, Cool Whip, Pringles, caviar) verge on absurdity.
“Wife guy” is a prominent part of Jonas’ public persona these days, the way “Disney kid” once was. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does bind his identity to that of another pop culture heavyweight, casting his music in the shadow of their combined celebrity. To cut through and leave a lasting impression of Nick Jonas, the artist, would require a vision much bolder than what Spaceman has to offer. The album’s interstellar concept is interesting enough to get it off the ground, but too quickly Jonas retreats to his domestic comforts, without really probing the relationship that so inspires him, or charting any new territory in the pop universe. It’s hard to imagine anyone who wasn’t already a Nick Jonas fan playing this album on repeat. His brand may sell, but this music is less desirable.