Review: Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon

Tobias Jesso Jr.’s debut, Goon, is adept enough to say what it wants to, and flawed enough to appear derived from reality.
tobias jesso jr


In August 2013, Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. uploaded a lo-fi recording of a song called “Just A Dream” onto YouTube. At that point, it was about all the world knew of him.

Late last month, Jesso made his television debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, performing the lamenting ballad “How Could You Babe” with backing from The Roots. Jesso’s rise has been quick and meteoric, largely because it seems, with just a cursory working knowledge of his background, that he writes from real, pained experience on Goon, his debut album. Not because of biographical accuracy, but because, as a father who maintains there will never be anybody like the Everly Brothers again might say, there’s an earnestness here that you just don’t see much these days.

Jesso’s inspiration seems to have been taken from the musical figures of the ’60s and ’70s who wore their hearts on their sleeves to the point where it seemed contrived, but not enough to sacrifice impact. Jesso has taken the emotional torch from these forebearers, who expressed themselves and often came off as cheesy because that’s how feelings are sometimes.

But Goon isn’t hokey. The album lives by its vivid narrative that runs from start to finish and, now ironically, focuses on the struggles of an unfulfilled musician trying to get by in California. A brief history of Jesso’s 20s: He moved to Los Angeles, played bass for various musicians for four years, had a tough go of it romantically, moved back home to Vancouver, worked for a moving company, learned the piano and yada yada yada... here we are.

tobias jesso jr-min

The obsessive nature of his recounting of his tale seems painfully authentic. “Mary Ann, I lost you in a dream / Then, the dream came true,” Jesso sings to open the album in “Can’t Stop Thinking About You.”

“And I find out you'd gone and met a new man / And told him he's the love of your life / How could you, baby?” he continues in “How Could You Babe.”

“I can hardly breathe without you / There is no future I want to see without you / I just don't know who I would be without you / There is nothing out there for me without you,” Jesso goes on in “Without You.”

This is how Goon carries on: as an explicitly detailed account of Jesso’s pains during his down years. The experience outlined in Goon resonates because of its relatability: I’m sorry... baby, wait... please don’t... I can change... damn. Anybody who’s had a run-in with love gone wrong can sympathize with the scope of experience Jesso presents, and what he does well is present a set of ideas that is universal without making them seem general. For obvious reasons, Goon would be a different album entirely if performed by an American Idol winner backed by Simon Cowell-approved production. Goon is adept enough to say what it wants to, and flawed enough to appear derived from reality.

There is nothing mind-blowing about the instrumentation of Goon. Aside from the occasional modern embellishment here and there, it is without doubt rooted firmly in traditions that have been established since longer than Jesso has been walking around. Jesso doesn’t have a perfect voice, but his flaws are less derailments and more idiosyncrasies. These pockmarks, along with strong and engaging composition, are what give personality to a record that could been another bland adult contemporary release destined for the sale bin.

Jesso’s two early YouTube demos, “Just A Dream” and “True Love,” both of which are still online, enthralled music bloggers because of how real they seemed. These were recordings any of their listeners could have made with their laptop mics, but Jesso materialized human feeling with a poignancy that left all involved feeling profoundly impacted and bare. Jesso hasn’t lost that touch on Goon: he just recorded it with better microphones and a few more instruments this time. B