'Illuminations': Josh Groban is still a swell guy

NOT OVER YET: Josh Groban's new album, "Illuminations," provides a glimpse of a pop-classical crossover artist in the middle of crossing over.
NOT OVER YET: Josh Groban's new album, "Illuminations," provides a glimpse of a pop-classical crossover artist in the middle of crossing over. (Charles Skykes/associated Press)
By Allison Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why didn't it come along sooner, this pairing of popera icon Josh Groban and mythical music guy Rick Rubin? Sure, it might seem strange at first. Groban is a likably nerdy man-boy with a steamroller of a voice and a fondness for Big: All of his songs seem born to be sung from mountaintops. Rubin is a producer and all-purpose musical messiah who found a winning formula with Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" (austerity + more austerity = authenticity) and has stuck with it ever since.

Rubin specializes in stripping away the fluff; Groban has, until now, been composed almost entirely of fluff. On Groban's relatively brave and frequently adorable fifth studio disc, "Illuminations," they tackle a fascinating question: How much ornamentation, how much pomp, can be subtracted from a Josh Groban album and have it still be a Josh Groban album?

"Illuminations" doesn't come close to finding out. It turns out that stripped-down for Groban is not stripped-down for most people, and "Illuminations" tempers, but does not do away with, his familiar touchstones: the swelling orchestras, the outsize vocals.

Slightly more contemporary than Groban's last non-holiday disc, 2006's "Awake," and slightly less . . . everything else, "Illuminations" isn't a revelation, but it offers a perfectly fine, and often quite lovely, glimpse at a pop-classical crossover artist in the middle of crossing over.

Big pop piano ballads such as "Higher Window" and "Hidden Away" (which, like many tracks here, Groban co-wrote with Semisonic frontman-turned-hit-songwriter Dan Wilson) are characteristic of "Illuminations" in general: Gorgeous, slightly puffed up, less inspirational than is Groban's wont, they're just different enough to seem mildly daring but not enough to be off-putting.

"Illuminations" feels like a record at war with itself, locked in a battle between Big and Bigger, between the Wilson tracks, which tend to be less mountainous, and predictably lush string ballads such as "Galileo" and "Bells of New York City." The biggest numbers, such as the Italian language chest-thumper "L'Ora Dell' Addio" and a cover of the Rufus Wainwright-Kate McGarrigle song "Au Jardin Des Sans-Pourquoi" scarcely bear Rubin's touch at all.

The disc's modified fripperies are probably necessary. Groban's voice is too immense to be shoehorned into a conventional pop album; he can't get any smaller without sounding thwarted and ridiculous. Rubin's only hope of novelty lies in making small songs bigger, which explains why "Illuminations" ends with a grand orchestral cover of Nick Cave's '92 sea-shanty ballad "Straight to You."

Its beating-heart-simulating percussion may be overly literal, but it's otherwise a doozy of track, which finds Cave and Groban united in their fondness for dark romantic overstatement ("For the sea will swallow up the mountains/And the sky will throw thunderbolts and sparks"). It's "Illumination's" best track, but only its second-most-interesting meeting of the minds.

Recommended tracks:

"Bells of New York City," "Galileo,"

"Straight to You"

Stewart is a freelance writer.

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