John Roderick is the singer of the Long Winters. He has a podcast called Roderick on the Line.
I thought it’d be fun to review the new Michael Bublé album because I assumed most of it would be tepid pseudo-jazz and I wanted to test my ability to say something interesting about it. I’ve got a little bit of a reputation as a “hater” and figured I’d better start trying to be a “liker” before I calcify in my taste and end up an old grouch. What better place to start than a Michael Bublé record? I want to make the transition to being a nicer person and a more likeable writer!
At least I come at big-band music from a genuine place. My dad was born in 1921, fought in WWII, loved big-band jazz and mostly stopped listening to new music after 1947, so I grew up hearing Ellington in constant and unreflected-upon rotation. It wasn’t until I was in sixth grade that I understood big-band wasn’t contemporary music; the first time I heard Pink Floyd it sounded to me like monkeys fighting. So if Bublé is making “jazz” at least I have the vocabulary to enjoy the bits done well.
What I wasn’t prepared for was to find a story inside the Bublé record, a story of Bublé wrestling with the gimmick that brought him fame, and trying his hand at songwriting and finding an authentic voice for himself. I didn’t expect to find that Bublé had an authentic voice at all, and especially not an ear for pop. Halfway through the first listen to this album I wanted to sit down with Michael Bublé and talk about his life, to elbow aside his management team and elicit his confession about what he really wants to do. The story is all there in the music.
The arrangement of the lead-off track is a total Count Basie homage, right down to the signature piano tag at the end, and Bublé does a cute impression of Sinatra that, aside from the hint of hip-hop in his phrasing, almost passes. I’m on his side here because it’s exactly the kind of music that Jennifer Aniston probably puts on when she wants to unwind, and you can’t hate a guy for that. All the proprietary feelings I have about young white guys saying “shoobee doo bop” were long ago exorcised by Harry Connick, Jr. ratpacking his way to more number one records than any jazz artist in history. If the guy wants to do callow Sinatra over Basie, at least he does a pretty good Basie.
The second tune, however, felt like the real start of the album. “It’s a Beautiful Day” is power-pop, cheeky, loud, guitar-heavy and unironic. I did not see it coming and, frankly, it’s good. Although firmly in the John Mayer/Train/Maroon 5 school of orthodontist’s office adult contemporary, it outclasses those artists by the addition of both a suave lack of self-seriousness and a horn arrangement that borders on Ben Folds-level fun. What did this track portend, I wondered? Confusion, was the immediate answer.
The next two tracks were Bee Gees and Smokey Robinson covers, expensive-sounding, click-track soul. I understand why Bublé wants to do karaoke versions of these tunes — they’re great tunes — but nothing is added to them by these boxed wine renditions. I started to feel like I was at a Mad Men-themed house party where most of the guys were wearing the one A/X suit they bought in 1998 assuming it’s “close enough” to ’60s garb. It’s not terrible by any means, and I could easily picture Jennifer Aniston in sweatpants dancing around in her kitchen eating something wrapped in seaweed right out of the fridge to it, but it’s not for me.
Then came the duet of “Something Stupid” with Reese Witherspoon, the low-key Latin vibe of the Sinatra version hopped up to appeal to fans of Santana’s chart-toppers. It’s never a good idea to add more Santana to Sinatra. Bublé was losing me fast, even though dueting with Witherspoon was another choice I couldn’t completely fault, but the first few seconds of the completely ill-advised cha-cha rendition of “Come Dance With Me” threatened to send me packing. The original song was a big-band barnstormer, but here they piled on the Rickie Ricardoisms until it sounded like Bettie Page wearing leopard-print creepers and riding a lowrider bicycle while someone in a ruffled shirt juggled pineapples. Not for me. Two Sinatra tunes in a row just forces an unfavorable comparison with Sinatra, my young friend. Bublé seems like a nice kid who loves his grandfather’s music, no harm in it, but these are covers that no one was asking for. I was ready to call it.
But lo, what’s this? Seven tracks along and here’s a power ballad, a bit of classic rock songwriting that soars like a modern country megahit without the “all hat/no cattle” baloney twang. The arrangement is massive, full of stadium-filling electric guitars but brimming over with swirling orchestra too, like Journey teamed up with the Moody Blues. Jennifer Aniston is literally crying now, standing in her kitchen, a dropped milk carton splattered at her feet, all her fame and money no comfort to her in the absence of ever having found her true love. Bublé’s voice sounds absolutely at home here, not trying to be Sinatra or Nat King Cole, just singing a big contemporary pop ballad with conviction.
This is followed by a rave-up duet with Bryan Adams that frankly kicks massive ass, with a melodic twist in the chorus that evokes Nada Surf and a huge production worth every bit of the million-plus dollars Bob Rock probably charged. Adams and Bublé pulled out all the songwriting chops on this one, and it sounds eternal, a tune to hang a whole album on, a tune to listen to again right away.
Jennifer Aniston is dancing in front of the fridge now, still crying but laughing through her tears, there’s milk everywhere, but now I’m dancing too! This song with Bryan Adams, “After All,” is so affirmative and celebratory I am moved to picture myself comforting Jennifer Aniston in a puddle of milk, both of us laughing at our lost loves, then kissing, first tentatively, then pawing at each other as the camera twirls around us to signify the dizzying ascendance of being released from our sorrow by rock music and by having finally found each other in this moment.
This is the point I wanted to sit down with Bublé and say, “My friend, why the lugubrious covers? Why the bland jazz standards? You are a pop singer! Make a goddamn rock record!” Closer inspection revealed that all the good songs on the album have a Michael Bublé writing credit! “Michael, you are writing cool songs, and you sing them with conviction. Your music has put me together with Jennifer Aniston! Stop covering Sinatra and write ten songs! GO!”
Alas, no. The rest of the album followed the same rocky course. Five more covers that will not offend anyone, that will play comfortably in orthodontists’ offices conveying a Canadian sophistication to match the Danish modern furniture in the reception area, and one more original composition that is both surprising and bold. The four tunes on the album with a Michael Bublé co-writing credit were the four most interesting songs by far, while the stylistic and quantitative bulk of the record was a workmanlike mix-tape for doing chores and getting your braces tightened.
Bublé has a voice that feels honest singing pop-rock. He is believable, and his emotional range is appropriate to the subject matter. I want Bublé to succeed and I understand he’s probably married to the hook that he’s gotta wear the blue sharkskin suit, gotta scat his way through some boobity-boobities because that’s his schtick. But despite the fact that his fans undoubtedly have convinced themselves that they are all enormous fans of big-band jazz, no one in this entire operation really cares about jazz at all. There’s no constituency for it, because he’s never going to be anything more than cute playing jazz. His version of big-band just sounds bright and fun, and he’s up front trying to sound worldly and sly. It’s Disney pirates. It doesn’t fly.
The appeal of Sinatra/Martin/Davis Jr. in Vegas in 1965 is obvious, but their slick suits, whiskey and cigarettes can’t be divorced from the fact that they were all in their forties, they’d been through a war, they were Italians and Jews and blacks in an unintegrated country, their audience was shitfaced and angry, and there were mobsters waiting by the stage door. To whatever degree big-band music and Rat Pack culture seem suave and cool, it was a product of a pressure-cooker of violence, racism, alcohol and PTSD. Bublé wants to be suave, and his fans want a little taste of being smooth, but they simply don’t have as much pain to put behind them. The appropriate musical venue for contemporary groove is not jazz, it’s pop-rock. This isn’t a slam, it’s a simple fact. No one can replicate the circumstances that made ’30s-’40s jazz so alive. “Michael Bublé, hear me now. You can do this. You can be a real pop star with no gimmicks. I want this for you. Jennifer wants it too. Do it for us.”