We should all know by now that, in this year of our Lord 2019, making fun of young women’s favorite boy groups is corny as hell. We did not know this in the aughts. The pop culture landscape then favorited grown-ass men eviscerating pretty boy pop acts from Justin Bieber to One Direction, attacking their saccharine marketability and way-too-radio-friendly brand of pop. Such a cultural climate, I think, eclipsed more thoughtful critics from valuating them for the artists they really were. I guess some male egos are too fragile to admit that some pretty boy pop is actually good. These were the same dudes, I bet, who didn’t want to admit that Camp Rock was chock-full of hits, “Burnin’ Up” had gnarly guitars, and that the JoBros were making honest-to-God art.
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Considering 1D’s split and Bieber’s track record of shenanigans, it’s kind of a miracle for a band like the Jonas Brothers, who also faced neckbeard criticisms over the course their Disney-propelled, high flying career, made it out alive. Beset on all sides by both rabid fans and unreasonable hate, the band broke up in 2013, which shouldn’t have been surprising. Shit gets tiring. One could take this breakup as a blessing in surprise, an extended sabbatical that allowed the boys to take a step back, live their own lives, and rediscover themselves artistically in the process. For their return, to what do we owe our thanks? Family therapy? Priyanka Chopra?
Knowing that the boys just came back from a hiatus is partly what makes Happiness Begins such a refreshing listen. It sounds the way a burst of inspiration feels after a deep creative rut.
Which isn’t to say the boys quit music before the comeback. Nick Jonas released some solo bops (and got swole while he was it) while Joe Jonas churned out funky stuff with DNCE. One can say that the sensibilities of these side projects came together in an amalgam in Happiness Begins. When the lead single “Sucker” came out, its bounce was so powerful it sprung the band back into the public eye. “I Believe” is also a bop, a confident hybrid of Billboard and disco shimmer.
But the album also has a few tracks whose grooves come in a little left field. “Only Human” and “Every Single Time” make it work with their in-the-pocket reggae inflections, their sound reminiscent of early work by The Police. “Don’t Throw It Away” has this whole “Chocolate”-era 1975 vibe going on, the boys’ falsetto as infectious as it was when they first started out.
I risk upsetting the more committed contingents of the Jonas Brothers’ fanbase when I say that the album may be great, but not extraordinary. “Happy When I’m Sad” has a hook that doesn't quite stick the landing. “Strangers” and “Hesitate” feel less like JoBros songs and more like a One Direction tracks off of Four —which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but come on man, my ears have their allegiances. “Rollercoaster” is by far the weakest track of Happiness Begins— that yodelling cowboy chorus just isn’t doing anybody any favors—but is also the only song without any Jonas writing credits. That’s a knock on them, and it still speaks volumes of the artistry of a band that, let’s not forget, has sold about 17 million albums worldwide.
At its worst, Happiness Begins is an album that reinvents the wheel of radio-friendly pop, loaded with inoffensive bops that sound most at home playing inside a Forever 21. But it’s hard to hate a record that bops and grooves as much as this does, with the kind of therapy-backed joie de vivre that gets three brothers to write songs together after years of distance. At its best, Happiness Begins is, well, happy. Or at least contented and comfortable. Cool. It’s enough to make a grown-ass man break out into a begrudging grin.