There’s a fragile voice ringing out in the scratchy, Vancouver home demos Tobias Jesso Jr. made his name on. It might have something to do with the circumstances - these are first takes, penned while the Canadian was looking after his sick mother, following a less-than-successful year in LA where fame couldn’t feel further away. He’d been through his fair share of tough luck by this point. On ‘Goon’, a near whimper is replaced with a booming, character-crammed declaration of intent. Out steps the real Jesso Jr., the guy everyone’s calling a classic songwriter in every sense.
It’s an obvious statement to make, given the timelessness of the recordings on ‘Goon’, but in many ways these songs do everything they can to dodge previous decades. ‘Crocodile Tears’ sees the songwriter taking on a crook-like tone - he sounds like he should be carrying a walking stick when backed with the buffoon-like lines, “I’m scratching my head / I’m behind on the news.” LP centrepiece ‘Hollywood’ is all about heartbreak - a universal, timeless topic - but it’s defined by a creeping swarm of horns that slowly unfold in the closing minute. A dramatic switch from those no-frills demos, this is a first work that tries to catch up with the present tense.
That’s not forgetting the real, heart-wrenching appeal of ‘Goon’. Jesso Jr.’s storytelling takes some topping. ‘Without You’ is the sound of earnestness peering over the edge of a cliff, avoiding clichéd sob stories by the hair on its neck. As it stands, it’s a direct love song that speaks on countless levels. And few things strike the senses quite like a deranged chant of “How could you babe?!” ringing out into eternity, the strain in Tobias’ voice only adding to the hysteria. With The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and lead producer Chet ‘JR’ White having a hand in the instrumentation, ‘Goon’ is gluttonously full of rich sounds, but it’s the running thread that counts: That voice, and its ability to sing about experiences like they’re universal stories, not a means of self-indulgence.
Some of ‘Goon’’s most satisfying moments arrive when the piano’s ditched altogether. Closer ‘Tell the Truth’ is built around looped guitar line, simplicity defined. The same goes for ‘The Wait’, a chiming acoustic piece that gives the LP’s heartbreak theme a sunny-side-up counterpoint. Try as he might to avoid the classic, seventies vibe however, nothing quite resonates like ‘Just a Dream’, Tobias’ perspective on what he’d tell a newborn baby about the world if he had just a few hours to live. “There’s a thing called hate and there’s a thing called love too / Like the love I have for your mum and for you,” is as no-frills and honest as this songwriter gets, and it’s his finest moment by a country mile.