Like the best musical theatre composers, Jason Robert Brown externalizes the minutest — though no less significant — inner emotions, bringing them to the fore through soaring songs whose elevated registers match the extremity of the dissected feelings.
A key component to this musical equation is a voice to match this flying, capturing the overflowing energy bursting out of the singers that can only be expressed in song. And on his latest album, How We React and How We Recover, Jason Robert Brown’s pipes just aren’t up to the task. His vocal prowess merely suggests the propulsive momentum building to the ultimate kinetic vitality needed to capture his compositions’ signature rush of emotions, but such vocal gesturing is not the same as sufficient channeling.
His stronger songs contain rich narratives of emotion, which should not be understood to be synonymous with purely-emotional narratives; they also include plots, communicated through observed exterior behavior that become metaphors, serving as windows into the characters’ emotional interiority. Since a lot of the tracks on How We React and How We Recover are detached from the sorts of clear characters that populate musicals, their lyrics too often devolve into saccharine sentiments. Whereas his musicals successfully plumb the specific in pursuit of the universal, this album just feels general.
He should approach albums like his Songs for a New World. Yes, that show was written to be staged; it’s a song-cycle revolving around similar themes, and each song is sung by a different character, none of whom appear in more than one. A cycle of songs about similar themes…sounds kind of like an album, right? As such, instead of relying on his God-given chords, perhaps Brown should just ask his bevy of talented, career-garnered crooner friends, Broadway belters all, to lend a hand…er…mouth to his “solo” endeavors. They would allow him to remain where he’s most comfortable: behind the keys and in their mouths (…not in THAT way).
I always respect artists who take risks by branching out into genres, styles and even forms outside their claims-to-fame, but a skill set in one medium doesn’t always translate to another; a songwriter that can sing does not a singer-songwriter make.