Music

The Jonas Brothers’ ‘Happiness Begins’ Is A Nostalgic Ode To Growing Up

Republic

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At his first job, Don Draper worked in-house at an old fur company. His mentor, Teddy, shared an important piece of wisdom. Most people think the best way to sell something is by creating an itch for something new and selling the only way of scratching it. But the best salesmen know that the only thing that inspires more desire than something new is something old. People ache for the things that remind them of childhood, love, and happiness. In the season one finale of Mad Men, Don Draper told a room full of Kodak executives this:

“Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.”

The Jonas Brothers know their way around a time machine. In their first big hit, 2006’s “Year 3000,” Nick, Joe, and Kevin sing about a trip to the future. They come home during lunch to discover a neighbor, who might be Doc Brown from Back To The Future, has made a time machine that can take anybody who’s interested to the year 3000. Rather than focusing on how the world had changed (the fact that everybody lives underwater is a footnote in the song), the JoBros are obsessed with their own legacy. “I took a ship to the year 3000 / This song had gone multi-platinum / Everybody bought our seventh album / It had outsold Kelly Clarkson,” they repeat in the song’s boom-clap, earworm bridge.

“Year 3000” itself is a time machine. The song reminds me of middle school summers and aimless, half-finished creative projects with friends, the time where I loved the music so much that I wouldn’t waste time listening to anything else. The lyrics of “Year 3000” are burned into my brain, along with the rest of the Jonas Brothers’ discography. Listening to their music sparks that “pain from an old wound” Draper was talking about, except the opposite. Listening to the Jonas Brothers brings back years’ worth of sunshine.

The Jonas Brothers’ reunion has been criticized by some as an empty nostalgia trip. Nick, Joe, and Kevin’s return to music, their first new album as a band since 2009, has been booed as a ploy to squeeze twenty-somethings with disposable cash for some easy tour bank. Anyone tossing off such cheap criticisms obviously hasn’t listened to Happiness Begins, and they could sit down and learn a thing or two from the wisest middle-aged white dude. The only thing we want more than something new is something old.

After a decade pursuing solo ventures and discovering their voices on their own, Happiness Begins sees the Jonas Brothers reuniting in complete harmony. As its title might suggest, Happiness Begins is a pretty cheerful album subject-wise. All three brothers are happily married, and as with several other of this year’s best records, stability and bliss make for solid, thoughtful songwriting. “Love Her” has a similar catchy guitar riff to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” but with none of the sarcasm. Think of it as a grown-up version of “Lovebug,” the same you’re-my-whole-world affection the Jonas Brothers mastered a decade ago, but with a groovier, more adult sound.

The Jonas Brothers’ sound as a whole has evolved to fit their songwriting sensibilities and the trends of pop in 2019. Following the breezy Song Of The Summer sounds of “Sucker” and “Cool,” the rest of Happiness Begins is pure Puth-wave, yacht-rock bliss. It’s a brilliant blend of retro synths and contemporary dancehall and tropical sounds. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s best track, “Only Human.” Over twinkling keys and a groovy bass line, Joe and Nick ask the listener to turn their brain off, stop overthinking, and just dance. The textured production is a perfectly-fit puzzle, a natural evolution from the effortless pop-rock of their teen years.

In their time apart, the band’s main vocalists Joe and Nick have become two really incredible singers. Happiness Begins is a chance to show off all the cool tricks they learned singing solo. Joe’s punky pop king voice has evolved to more than just a punchy chorus. Some of the album’s best moments come when he’s singing against type — the sweet falsetto of “Hesitate” sounds like an easy Nick solo, but it’s even more impressive to show off Joe’s softer side. In his solo career, Nick was more of a Timberlake-style R&B-pop crooner, but he sounds just as natural delivering a punchy power-pop chorus like “Don’t Throw It Away.” Kevin Jonas also deserves a shout-out of appreciation. Their live performances show just how crucial he is as the rock of the band, his steady guitar giving the album that technical edge that takes it from good to great. They’re all in top form here — Happiness Begins is the rare reunion album that’s actually better than anything the band had put out pre-breakup.

And, just like in “Year 3000,” the Jonas Brothers maintain that fascinating thematic preoccupation with the past. They echo the album’s title in two different songs — once describing a night of dancing and catharsis in “Only Human” and once on the stunning emotional centerpiece “Rollercoaster.” Borrowing an Avicii-style country-EDM sound, the Jonas Brothers reminisce on the “rollercoaster” chaos of their lives on top of the pop world. While those of us listening heard the effortless joy of best friends making music together, selling that joy out for profit was exhausting. When they think of those years, they don’t think of VMAs and sold-out arenas and famous girlfriends and private jets. The little moments were what made it all worth it, and what made it worth going back to.

For most of the album, the brothers take turns singing, but the chorus of “Rollercoaster” features some powerful rare group vocals. They sound like more than just three guys in a band. They’re a constellation. “It was fun when we were young and now we’re older / Those days when we were broke in California / We were up-and-down and barely made it over / But I’d go back and ride that roller coaster with you,” they sing, opening every nostalgic “pain from an old wound” and sending the whole carousel of memories spinning.

If Happiness Begins is a nostalgia trip, it certainly isn’t an empty one. The Jonas Brothers use the album as a showcase for their evolution as musicians, delivering god-tier pop that’s both perfectly ready for 2019 and reminiscent of a familiar kind of happiness. Listening to them still feels like hanging out with my best friends on a sunny summer day. They still make the kind of music I want to memorize like nothing else exists.

Don Draper nailed this feeling at the end of his Kodak Carousel pitch. There may have ultimately been a product at stake, but you can’t put a price on loving something, and feeling loved back. Like a roller coaster, like a ship to the year 3000, this connection to our past and future might be one of the most valuable things pop culture can give us.

“It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again […] It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Happiness Begins is out now via Republic. Get it here.

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