The story of Tobias Jesso Jr.’s rapid ascent in many ways began with the breakup of the band Girls and Jesso reaching out to producer Chet “JR” White in the aftermath of the split. But the storybook beginning, which included Jesso relocating from Vancouver to San Francisco, sleeping on White’s couch during recording, and inevitably collaborating with the likes of The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and Ariel Rechtshaid as well, is only the background. Jesso’s debut, Goon, doesn’t need any of it to be impactful or important. What Jesso has delivered is a record that needs no context, that can exist outside of time and place. Jesso, in short, has crafted a masterpiece, with the only connection of real significance being between him and his audience.
While the comparisons to Harry Nilsson and John Lennon hold up over the course of the debut, what may be the most surprising is the range that Jesso shows throughout. Goon isn’t all piano ballads; hell, it isn’t all ballads, period. “Crocodile Tears” is a mid-tempo, psych-tinted strut that finds Jesso boo-hoo-hooing his way into unexpected territory. “Leaving L.A.” is something totally different, lounge-y in its instrumental breaks, allowing Jesso freedom to veer from straight-ahead singer/songwriter territory. Throw in the guitar backbones of “The Wait” and “Tell the Truth,” and Goon contains plenty of variety in both tone and arrangement, carefully placed gaps in the ultimate strengths of the album.
Still, Goon is mostly excellent slow songs about heartbreak, about the fear of failure, about losing your direction and hoping to find it. On a revamped version of his first shared demo, “Just a Dream,” Jesso tries to juggle the complexities of human existence. “There’s a thing called hate, and a thing called love, too,” he explains to imaginary offspring, with the range and purity of the human emotional experience being its own reward. On his first single, “Hollywood,” when Jesso prays for God to help him because he’s “done the best [he] could,” the sentiment lands as both fleeting and as universal. The glimmer of hope in the heartbreak of “How Could You Babe” is knowing that everything does get better for Jesso, that the hard times were just another bridge to cross.
The sentiments of Goon mirror the sonics, coming across as these temporary whims and homages, but also as an underexplored, weighty tradition of the great songwriting that has gone missing of late. It isn’t long into the opening song, “Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” where the listener is asked to make connections from the subconscious, to spot the influences and the references. And because Jesso is working in a tradition that hasn’t been common of late, his music can feel as necessary as the air we breathe, the water we drink. When Jesso sings his own “Without You,” far from Nilsson’s classic of the same name, he echoes this sentiment, claiming “I can hardly breathe without you.” The relationship between artist and audience is mutually dependent, and in Tobias Jesso Jr., music has rarely felt so symbiotic.