Artist: Josh Groban
Album: All That Echoes
Josh Groban presents something of a conundrum for me. In theory, his attempts to unite classical music with pop should be right up my alley, and yet too often I find that the genres make for mawkish and uncomfortable bedfellows in his music. There’s a sense that the dramatic complexity of the classics is too pared down and the pop too out of place. Unfortunately, this is true of All That Echoes. It’s an awkward marriage of pop and sugary Disney-esque sentimentality, so dulcet and inoffensive that it’s hardly surprising the sole standouts are the exotic (the beckoning dark flourishes of “Sincera”) and the understated (the stripped, earthy swell of “Hollow Talk”). Of course in saying this, I feel terrible. Groban is the very personification of affable – a nice-looking guy with an amiable demeanour and a polished, velvetine voice. He’s like Hugh Grant’s film persona as a singer. Disliking him feels kinda like disliking a kitten, although I’m pretty sure kittens never had to wrestle with 21st century interpretations of old Irish folk songs. The problem is that the niceness is off-putting – curtailing flavour and poisoning adventure. Everything’s very clean-cut and very pretty and impossibly dull, twinkling with the grace of classical music and none of the intensity.
Bringing the classics to a mainstream audience is never easy, but I’m convinced there’s room for more exploration and darkness than this. Much of All That Echoes pines for melodrama. The opening cascade of songs are curiously repetitious, leaning on the vanilla shoots of pop and blending into samey snapshots of an unremarkable whole. “Brave” and “False Alarms” embrace their sweetened style with gusto, dwelling on hope and enchantment as fuelled by the sentimental sheen of keys and robust percussion. There is beauty in Groban’s romantic vocals, but it’s just too plain to endear. “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” has the same effect, all gaudy realisation and no depth. The style of music does invite this kind of emphatic, slightly overdone interpretation but it takes up too much of All That Echoes, and too often sounds obvious and blunt where it should be enchanting.
In addition to “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”, the album features a number of covers with varying degrees of success. “Falling Slowly” is quite lovely. Jettisoning the delicacy of the original, it seems stronger and earnest and yet retains its sweetness, vulnerability, and tenderness. This too has the Disney air of the other tracks but it somehow works for the song, fortifying it and adding a sense of triumph and momentous wonder. Groban’s willowy vocals suit this rendition, and do it immense justice. “She Moved Through the Fair” is a difficult song to pull off, particularly given how indelibly and poignantly Sinéad O’Connor rendered it for the denouement of Michael Collins. Personally, and this could just be down to my nationality, I really feel it needs a sean-nós voice to thrive and this cover does a great deal to illustrate why. The song should be slightly cold, exposed and unaware, with a deep sense of longing that makes it incredibly affecting. By contrast, Groban’s polished vocals make it too warm and refined and remove the sense of portentous chill that lets it linger long after it’s finished. It’s a respectful interpretation, but not a convincing one.
The more exotic numbers also tend to be hit and miss. “E Ti Promettero” doesn’t work at all for me, an over-simplified duet with Laura Pausini that cries out for the flair and theatrics of the Italian tongue in which it’s written. Such is finally discovered in “Sincera.” Compared to the wide-eyed dreaminess of the earlier songs, this feels pointed and lived in and infinite, with the music exquisitely played to underscore the nuances in his voice. The use of an organ is particularly laudable, bringing tragedy and angst to a gorgeously rich song. The album’s other standout is “Hollow Talk”. More like a half-imagined aside to oneself than any audience, this is whimsical and ethereal and thoughtfully realised with soft vocals. Even when it springs into life past the three-minute mark, its notes are unchanging – the solemn, grandiose violins merely adding a sense of occasion to the nebulous musing that has gone before.
The epitome of charmingly inoffensive, All That Echoes will certainly do well with a general audience, but it doesn’t offer much that’ll linger. It’s thinly realised and far too safe, even sacrificing the potential of those songs it seeks to cover. It’s a satisfying enough bookmark for the time being but it would be nice to see Groban take a few more risks in future.
Review written by Grace Duffy