Album Review: Josh Groban, “Illuminations” (2010)

It’s sad to see the slow decline of an artist you once loved.  I’m not sure if Josh Groban’s music has really gotten worse over the years, or maybe I’ve moved past loving his brand of classical pop music, but either way, I’ve found myself enjoying him less and less over the recent years.  His latest album was an absolute disaster, and while its predecessor wasn’t quite as bad, it’s definitely nowhere near being a great album, either.

The main problem with Illuminations (released in 2010) is that Groban seems to rely on making the same exact music he has for twelve years, without changing much of it up.  Sure, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but unfortunately, Groban’s standard album of ballads, foreign language songs, and dreadful covers needs lots of improvement, and Groban seems to have no idea that it’s not working for him anymore.

The album begins with an instrumental prelude, titled The Wandering Kind.  The piece is a pretty composition of stringed instruments, with a bit of folk/Celtic influence, particularly when flutes are introduced.  The instrumental piece is somewhat of an odd start to the album, but I suppose it acts as a nice introductory piece.

Bells of New York City
follows, taking some of the same themes from the prelude and placing them in an eerie melody; the opening strings are dark and heavy, giving off a dramatic feeling.  The downtrodden melody and Groban’s stoic delivery continue to drive home the mood, as he croons about the loneliness he feels (“It’s always this time of year that my thoughts undo me/With the ghosts of many lifetimes all about/But from these mad heights I can always hear the sound/Of the bells of New York City singing all around”).  The track is the only departure from Groban’s typical love song/inspirational song forte, which automatically makes it a winner, in my book.

I wish I could say the same of the following track, Galileo (Someone Like You).  A few years ago, I reviewed an album from an Irish musician, Declan O’Rourke.  O’Rourke is one of my favourite singer-songwriters, and Galileo is actually his song.  How Groban heard of it or got a hold of it, I’m not too sure, as O’Rourke isn’t internationally famous by any means, but here it is: a watered-down cover version of one of my favourite songs.  My complaint about covers still stands: don’t do it if you can’t make it better than the original, and not only has Groban done nothing to improve upon the original, he’s actually turned what was once a beautiful, passionate song, into a what could essentially be a song about paint drying- that’s how boring it is.   Some things should just be left alone.

The first foreign language song appears with L’Ora Dell’Addio.  Groban has done many Italian language songs in his career, and this sounds pretty similar to most of them.  His soaring vocals during the chorus are nice, but this isn’t really anything new or exciting.  Meanwhile, Au Jardin Des Sans-Pourquoi features more dramatic music (actually a bit similar to Bells of New York City), but I can’t really connect to the French song.  I used to really love Groban’s foreign language ballads, but I find them boring now- we’ve heard the same trilling he does during the verses, and since I don’t know what the lyrics are, I can’t even connect to the song’s meaning.

Josh Groban in a concert

Thankfully, there’s only one more non-English song on the album, this time Groban’s first song sung in Portuguese, Voce Existe Em Mim.  The track is easily the best of the three- at least the epic drumming throughout the song gives off a far more exciting feeling than the others.  Musically, the song still ends up going down the same big-chorus-soaring-vocals route that all of Groban’s ballads typically do, but the beginning of the song is really what saves it more than anything else.

Most of the album consists of original songs, all co-written by Groban and musician, Dan Wilson. Lead single, Hidden Away, was a track I enjoyed from the first listen.  Sure, the first verse sounds very similar to “You Raise Me Up”, but for the most part, the love song isn’t just another  paint-by-numbers of all of Groban’s earlier work.  The chorus is simplistic, but nice (“I want to free your heart/I want to see your heart/Please don’t keep your heart hidden away”), and Groban reigns in his vocals, offering a well done, understated delivery.   Higher Window is a mid-tempo ballad which really picks up during the uplifting chorus (“And there is a light/From a higher window/Shining down on you tonight/And the music floats on the breeze/Bringing an easier time”), while dreary ballad, If I Walk Away sounds nice but ends up being quite forgettable overall.  Despite War At Home having an interesting name, the song also fails to keep my interest- Groban’s delivery is as flat as the lifeless melody.

The album ends with the biggest travesty of all, yet another cover song.  When I first bought this album, I had never heard of Nick Cave or the song, Straight To You.  When my boyfriend and I got together, he introduced me to fellow Aussie, Cave, and sent me several of his albums- one of which included Straight to You.  Now, I never cared for Groban’s version, even before hearing the original- I thought his singing was monotone and uninspired, and the melody was so dull and downtrodden, that I always stopped listening to the album before the last song even began to play.  However, after hearing Cave’s gorgeous, soulful original song, I have nothing but contempt for Groban’s lackluster cover.  It’s the same case as Galileo; where Cave’s original version was full of life and soul, Groban’s version lacks any sort of heart or meaning.  He’s also slowed down the song significantly and turned it into a brooding ballad, which the original song wasn’t at all.  I beg of you, Josh Groban, please, please, just stop doing cover songs.

Illuminations
isn’t an awful album, but it definitely isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone, either.  There isn’t a single song I love; at most, I enjoy a few tracks, but I don’t listen to them often, and I don’t feel as though my life was missing something without hearing them, either.  Josh Groban is a talented guy, but he definitely needs to explore new territories musically, or his career will end up being just as dry and forgettable as this album is.

Rating: 3_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. Wandering Kind (Prelude)
2. Bells of New York City
3. Galileo
4. L’Ora Dell’Addio
5. Hidden Away
6. Au Jardin Des Sans Pourquoi
7. Higher Window
8. If I Walk Away
9. Love Only Knows
10. Voce Existe Em Mim
11. War At Home
12. London Hymn
13. Straight To You

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