Sound — 4
First entering the music scene before he turned twenty, Nate Ruess' first shot at major-label greatness ended in a close-but-no-cigar frustration, after his first band, The Format, was dropped by Atlantic right before the release of their second and final album, "Dog Problems." Ruess would end up having the last laugh after finding breakthrough success with his second band, Fun., where they would sign with Fueled By Ramen (which, coincidentally, is distributed by Atlantic) to release their immensely popular second album, "Some Nights."
However, with Ruess' music endeavors always being in groups, his desire to start a solo career has only grown bigger over time, having spoken about wanting carte blanche on composition rather than continuing to collaborate and compromise with musical cohorts. Evidently, this desire ended up being in synchronicity with the other two members of Fun., and the trio has gone on hiatus to tackle other music projects. While Jack Antonoff is working with his new project Bleachers, and Andrew Dost is working on film scores, Ruess is continuing to work with Fueled By Ramen and finally scratching the itch for a solo career with his debut solo album, "Grand Romantic."
Despite the eagerness Ruess has to finally be the sole captain for the sound of an album, "Grand Romantic" by and large doesn't contain much exploration into sonic territories that he hasn't been to before. The few occasions Ruess tries new things reveal a strange bid for aged (or stale, for the glass-half-empty crowd) adult contemporary - the swelling synth melodies in "You Light My Fire" strongly evoke '80s-era pop, and the flaccid soft rock cut "Take It Back" tries to grow some hair on its chest midway-through with a '80s-style power ballad guitar solo, only making the song sound much more kitsch.
All the other directions Ruess takes in the album can be traced back to earlier points in Ruess' career. Songs like the poppy lead single "AhHa," the piano ballad "Nothing Without Love" and the pop gospel song "Great Big Storm" easily sound like B-sides from Fun.'s "Some Nights," whereas the hint-of-country pop rock collab with Beck "What This World Is Coming To" echoes back to Ruess' style heard in The Format's "Intervention + Lullabies," with Beck's contribution being little more than playing substitute for a role that Antonoff would've played otherwise. But the return that Ruess seemed to look forward to the most is the return of orchestral bombast that he first flexed in Fun.'s debut album, "Aim and Ignite." Of course, with Ruess unrestrained, he focuses on one-upping those previous orchestral endeavors, and ends up overshooting the mark, as heard in the Christmas carol pomp of the album's title song, as well as Ruess' flighty vocal activity of falsettos and yelps in "Moment" and "Brightside." It's these overindulgent fits of grandiosity that also make the modest-by-comparison "It Only Gets Much Worse" the most enjoyable song on the album - with its basic bang-for-the-buck classical arrangement, it shows that bigger doesn't always mean better.
Lyrics — 6
Though anyone would expect a musician's solo debut to be very personal in comparison to previous works, Ruess' lyrics in "Grand Romantic" don't differ that much in comparison to his lyrics with Fun. In fact, a number of tropes previously used are recycled this time around, from the general scenarios of weekend bar crawls in "You Light My Fire" and "Harsh Light," to the more specific and rather shameless reuse of the "empire state" wordplay in "Nothing Without Love," which was first used in Fun.'s big hit "We Are Young."
Self-derivativeness aside, however, Ruess does create a feasible personal theme with "Grand Romantic." From the start, he frames his experiences of misfortune and heartache as a means for an artistic life, displayed in the lines "I found some songs among the tragic / Hung my hat on sadness / Mama, I think they're trying to keep the grand romantic in me" in the revelatory "AhHa." But as he continues to bring forth those aforementioned songs bred from tragedy (see the lonely heart howling of "Nothing Without Love," the breakup song "Moment," and the cynical epiphany of "It Only Gets Much Worse"), Ruess realizes how much of a toll it takes playing a role like that, and ultimately recants his earlier statement in the album track, where the children's choir sings "I don't want to be the grand romantic / Grand romantic anymore."
Overall Impression — 4
Ruess' uninhibited solo effort of "Grand Romantic" results in little more than backtracking to songwriting moments in his past and reclaiming them for himself. This not only makes the album feel bumpy and lacking in cohesion, but it also places the album in the uncomfortable valley between familiarity and expansion. While some moments will likely appeal to Fun. fans, "Grand Romantic" won't be enough to tide over those waiting for the next Fun. album, and the moments where Ruess tries to diversify his sound aren't sufficient enough to give him his own musical identity.