“An operatic voice that soars into superhuman heights and makes us reach for our handkerchiefs, tacky lyrics and a boring style, melodramatic songs”, etc. This could have been Josh Groban’s description, at any point in his career, if he were just one of the many singers blessed with a beyond ordinary voice.
But he is not.
Moreover, try shoving him into any musical genre or category and he will bounce back right into your face.
If you have heard some of his previous work, you will know that Mr Groban is comfortable both in classical melodies and – well – everything else. I do mean everything else. Josh had commented several times on the blessing and curse of his voice; there really is not much you can do when you’ve got a voice like this in your throat, it’s like a beast ready to unleash its fury on the unsuspecting. Nevertheless, he has always been ready to embark on new adventures and discard all expectations, all pressure from labels and public alike. At the risk of losing fans by the thousands, he has sung pop, he has again and again sung world music, he is ready to sing jazz, and gospel.
With this new album, the singer is treading on grounds untouched before. It is a shock but despite his repeatedly stated dislike for country music, he is almost there! You’re on the borderline, Josh, admit it, admit that you’re a sucker for country music, that simple humanity and unassuming spirituality that country (and its sub-genres) has to offer. There are folk and country elements in here, a-plenty; there are instruments unheard before in his songs (the trained will tell us exactly what instruments, all I know is that I have heard them before on all those albums I love by folk and alt-country artists), and if you expected – well – anything, you better hold onto your seats. This ride has started way back, back with his second album „Closer”, back where world music surfaced beside the grandiose melodies targeted at conservative audiences. It continued in „Awake”, his third studio album, where there was a lot of auditory dessert for the musically expectant, and it takes giant steps further into a land of total musical awesomeness with „Illuminations”.
THE WANDERING KIND (PRELUDE) is an instrumental song, something 99% of Josh Groban fans did not expect. I’m sure most of us sat with our mouths hanging open at the melody and complexity of this musical piece. Considering the fact that he started writing this at the age of 12, well… I rest my case. The upbeat pace, the unusual mixture of instruments reflects on so many cultures around the world and proves that this young man is not one to settle in just one place, literally or figuratively speaking. Josh takes us by the hand and, at the risk of sounding tacky, he leads the way for us, timid folk. For an album starter, this song could not have been better chosen!
A haunting melody and eerie mood that combined with melancholy piano and the sound of bell-chime results in a painfully gripping second song. After the positive tone of the first one, BELLS OF NEW YORK CITY is a song of reminiscing about the past, and of someone in particular… it is a song of indecision, a song of reluctant memories that come back to persist and linger obstinately, against someone’s will. It is a song of lamentation, of pleading for things lost. It is a song of winter, of things gone, there is not much hope in this song „of joy and redemption and everything in between”. The strings convey passion, the piano and the bells tear at the heart. It pretty much calls for a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. Or two.
The most important song on the record, message-wise, is GALILEO. The line „Galileo fell in love” says it all, if the song were this one line it would already send the message out… to everyone who is brave enough to embrace THE INEXPLICABLE. This song is a gentle confession, of love, and of faith. It dares to mention science and spirituality under the same breath and it dares to say that BOTH ARE EQUALLY IMPORTANT… If anyone is scientific-minded, but enlightened enough, they will get the message. Otherwise we could go on and on writing essays about the importance of this song but if one is ready, and willing, the message is there at first glance. Tremendously uplifting.
As if taken out of a Broadway musical, L’ORA DEL’ADDIO is monumental and tender at the same time, the vocals are magnificent, and the fact that Josh co-wrote the song gives us a hint at how important stage singing/acting is for him. This song could be the forerunner of many, many Broadway plays to come, co-written by Mr Groban. Even the ones who dislike the musical genre (like me) will certainly see the merits of the song, and especially appreciate the vocal achievement.
HIDDEN AWAY is the trickiest song on the entire album. The melody seems simple, almost simplistic. The lyrics are made up of simple words. It seems to be a simple song. But it starts growing on you upon each hearing and I have heard it approximately twenty times so far… let me tell you, this song ranks with Galileo in my book, as far as its message is concerned. This song speaks to everyone, regardless of social status and age; it urges us to speak, show, paint, sing, yell, dance, build our message, show our true colours, say it, SAY IT, do it, don’t hide it, be brave, dare, DARE TO FEEL, DARE TO DREAM, DARE TO DO… dare to show yourself. Never hide away. For some, the song is a confession of love… and that’s fine too. For me, it’s about honesty, openness of mind and spirit… and heart. This message could never have come at a better time, for me, for you, for us all.
AU JARDIN DES SANS-POURQUOI is in French. Oui. Not the first song Josh sings in this difficult language, pronunciation-wise. He is quite good at it, though. Moreover, he wrote it. He wrote this song. Vous comprenez? Il a écrit cette chanson. Mon Dieu! I did not know this at the time I first listened to the album; all I heard then was the beautiful language and a beautiful song about returning there… where there are no questions… where there is innocence. Yes, this song is about the Garden of Innocence, that garden which was the comfortable nest for the first lovers, Adam and Eve, and which has been every lover’s haven who came after that. Again, the song reminisces on the story of a love lost… it is another song of longing, but very different from „Bells„ because one cannot help but feel hope in this one. One day, that beam of light will crash through the thick layers of darkness. Beautiful, Josh, beautiful!
HIGHER WINDOW is quickly becoming one of everyone’s absolute favourites from the album. The lyrics speak of regret, but also redemption; the friendly melody reaches our hearts without the slightest effort; the chorus that spreads warmth and love and most of all, light into this world, into our very souls. Yet again, it is a spiritual love song, one that uses the metaphor of light to convey hope. Without light, this world would be lost and after the rebelling sadness of „Au jardin…”, this song soothes like a gentle prayer.
One of the most personal songs from a very personal and introspective album, IF I WALK AWAY makes one feel shame; how is it we get to hear this, how can we listen to the lyrics without being changed, saved, redeemed? It’s hard to say where the merits of the song lie, maybe in the gently pleading words, maybe in the incredible instrumentation, so unusual from Josh’s previous music. And when the song builds, all fear falls away and explosions of colours explode behind one’s eyes, there is so much promise, so much positivity in this song that one feels like soaring… it’s like Josh had lent each of us his own wings so we could fly with them until our own become strong enough to bear the uncertainties and fears that mime our perfect selves. If he took us by the hand at the beginning of the album, his hand has certainly never been tighter on ours than in this song. Will we follow him, if he walks away? I speak for myself: I WILL FOLLOW YOU, JOSH, ALWAYS. With heart and soul.
LOVE ONLY KNOWS starts in the manner of a Renaissance ballad, and Josh’s song cutting into the silence like a timid bard’s; then, slowly, instruments step in one by one, and as the words turn into a gentle but reassuring love confession, the chorus sends us into heights unimaginable. We are ear-witnesses to some incredible dynamics within the frame of just one song, the softness building into such power… a perhaps un-biased „wow” is in order! There is definite hope that love conquers all, and upon hearing Josh’s voice, one can again fully believe in love, even if faith had been lost.
VOCE EXISTE EM MIM
There is a reason why I am leaving the title all by itself, to stand alone.
I am not sure I am musically learned enough to speak of this song without messing up… but here’s what I feel.
I feel there has not been such an original, unique and complex song in Josh Groban’s career.
I feel the combination of his voice and the Brazilian drum ensemble is something not many would expect.
The end result is absolute, sheer, unforeseen brilliance.
It’s like the blood rushing through our veins when love and passion dictate the tempo.
It’s like buds blooming in Spring, stroked by the first lazy sunlight after the twilight of winter.
It’s like being reborn.
Magnificent is an understatement.
After the sensory overload of the previous masterpiece, WAR AT HOME assails our hearts in a completely different way. So many of us are among the lucky ones who have never had to suffer the consequences of any kind of war. Many of us were born into a generation that has been provided with everything needed for a perfectly safe and happy life. It is safer to say now than it was several decades ago that if one messes up, it will be their fault and theirs only.
Nevertheless, the pain emanating from this song touched one profoundly and one is also touched by the depth of emotion Josh displays in these lyrics. The psychological trauma of war survivors is manifest in the words, sung by one who has never had to live through any war himself, which only proves how deeply he feels for everyone forced to fight a war against people like himself. The repetitive vocals preceding the chorus that explodes into complete pain convey the monotony of soldiers marching into their death. Again, Josh wrote this.
To give my opinion on LONDON HYMN requires my complete sincerity and that might result in the total discrediting of this review, but I will take that risk. When I first heard the album as a whole, this was the first song that made me cry. I cried like a baby, I did. I do not wish to dwell too much on the song, it’s a feeling, a thought, a state of heart. One feels it or they don’t. I did, and upon finding out that this beautiful short piece was, again, written by Josh, I was (and still am) once again amazed by his talent.
They told me STRAIGHT TO YOU was a Nick Cave cover. That meant that before reviewing this version, first I had to hear the original. One would be a downright fool to get into a Nick Cave song without knowing its background, the album’s background etc. One does get the Biblical references that emphasize the strength of a love song, embedded in… in great music. It’s good stuff. The cover version is more quiet and pensive, less upbeat, an eerie confession of love, slow and soft and playfully macabre at the same time, building up to apocalyptic heights both lyrically and musically. It is pure genius, and my hat goes off both to Mr Cave for the original song, and Mr Groban for daring to put this cover on his album. It’s very much out of the box and his fans are challenged to broaden their horizons, like in so many of the above songs.
FEELS LIKE HOME (the iTunes bonus track) is the most beautiful love song I have heard in a long time… these are words we all crave to hear just once in our lives, and if we have, we are among the chosen ones. Such a tender confession sung in a humble tone that allows itself to soar higher upon the peak of the song. This song, alongside the others, is a musical gem untainted by corny lyrics and the aggressive beats that seem to permeate so many of today’s „love songs”; it is more daring in its simplicity than most sexually explicit pop-hits could ever be. It is a love song for the old souls of this world.
After „Voce…”, THEY WON’T GO WHEN I GO (one of the bonus tracks on the Internet Fan Edition CD) is one of the most daring pieces, musically speaking, a cover version of Stevie Wonder’s brilliant original. It is a unique piece of music in itself, a resigned song in the face of assumed death, and this cover (in my opinion done with humbleness and obvious admiration) does plenty of justice to its ancestor. In it, horns sound instead of the original piano, making this version slightly different, pushing it into the classical direction, but just a little bit. The cataclysm of the unforgettable voice and orchestra burst into the lamenting mood of the song with a start, then all is resignation again, all is letting go, all is facing fears, facing the end, ready to depart and meet destiny. (Some say Stevie Wonder wrote the song when he thought he was dying, the song was his farewell to the world.) A surprising choice for a bonus track but then again, most of the songs on this album have loads of the surprise factor in them.
LE COSI CHE SEI PER ME is the second bonus track from the Internet Fan Edition CD. The title means „the things you are to me” and if that is not enough to start the tears, the Italian language, the beautifully flowing lyrics and a monumentally sad melody will. The song reminds us most of Josh’s older, previous musical self, and it will (should!) satisfy even the most critical, classic-trained fans. One is swept away by the power of the lyrics and the melody, there is no way fans will avoid the „replay” button; biased or not, I listened to it 6 or 7 times in a row. The song is Josh’s comfort zone in the sense that this is how he was introduced to the world, this is what took him into the hall of fame established for classical crossover artists, but the incredible vocals prove how far he had come: his voice is perfect, even for the most sensitive ear. This song is sure to become a concert favourite.
And there you have it. There is a significant amount of debate over this album already; some have found plenty of ingredients in the songs they can criticize, none of Josh’s records have elicited so much controversy. I believe he is loving the fact that we have taken up the challenge and most of us are ready to be shown a new musical world, one he loves so much, one he is so eager to explore. Whether it’s Broadway or classical crossover or folk/country/new age, Josh Groban is not afraid to embrace it all.
And he is patiently waits for us all to get…