Nate Ruess’ runaway mainstream success with Fun felt like a vindication of his years in the trenches co-fronting power-pop band The Format, as well as a victory for the ambitious music in which he’s always specialized. In turn, his solo debut Grand Romantic feels like his way of finding his own distinct voice separate from a group, a chance for him to indulge in styles and directions he’s never explored before. Perhaps that’s why the delineation between his previous work and this album is so significant. While no less complex than Fun’s pop (after all, the title track ends in a cloud of heavenly choir, horns, and strings), Grand Romantic is also far more even-keeled: The whip-cracking, snotty titular chants throughout “AhHa” and the confident, show tunes-dramatic romantic declarations “Nothing Without Love” and “Great Big Storm” are the rare moments with bite.
The record is instead dominated by sedate pop and treacly ballads that only hint at darkness (e.g., having to rush home for a death in the family, stormy romance). Lyrics mostly stick to the self-referential, familiar tropes of clinging to love, getting high, breaking free, moving to New York, all-consuming longing, and carrying on despite turmoil. Although Grand Romantic is completely earnest when touching on these themes, its songs have a disappointing lack of emotional conflict and nuance. Ruess’ solo hit with Pink, “Just Give Me A Reason,” succeeded by drawing its depth from smart conversation, which then illuminated larger truths; Grand Romantic’s stories, in contrast, tend to stay on the surface or are one-dimensional, which makes it difficult to connect with them in deep ways.
The album’s sleepy tempos also don’t help: The waltzing “Take It Back” resembles Wilco’s recent work (no doubt because Jeff Tweedy contributed guitar and the song contains a backdrop of whimsical sound effects) but shimmers into the ether, while the plodding country lope “What This World Is Coming To” and its fried-out guitars wastes a Beck cameo. Grand Romantic’s ambition and sentiment combine most skillfully on “It Only Gets Much Worse,” whose mincing orchestral arrangements are as graceful as a ballet, and the piano-driven “Brightside,” which blooms with the lyrical cleverness and syrupy tone of an epic Broadway love story. In these instances, Ruess succeeds at capitalizing on his larger platform while carving out his own niche as a songwriter. But Grand Romantic often feels so preoccupied with grandiose gestures that it loses sight of the little details that in the past have made Ruess’ music so memorable.