"All I care about it is you and me and us and now," lead singer Taylor
Hanson declares on the exuberant new Hanson single "If Only." But it's a
moment of uncharacteristic confidence. Before the song is finished, Taylor
and his brothers are just not certain if they'll have the guts to follow through
on that impulse. "If only I had the guts to feel this way," Taylor sings, and
the joyous music swirling about him lets you know he really hopes he can.
It's just such feelings of fear and uncertainty -- and hope -- that drive the
Those who've peered beneath the teen group's bubblegum fagade already
know this. Hanson's signature hit, "MMMbop," was about the scary unpredictability
of change, and virtually every cut on the group's powerful multiplatinum
debut, "Middle of Nowhere," was preoccupied with facing an uncertain future.
Many of Hanson's fans, particularly their adult ones, will admit to enjoying
the group only sheepishly, but Hanson's music is unabashed. With songs that looked unblinkingly at runaway kids, universal alienation and the death of a loved one, "Middle
of Nowhere" rejected the notion that Hanson are a mere guilty pleasure. You
could even say that the record's fervent themes argued against the stunted conceptions of
human emotion that lead people to feel guilty about pleasure in the first
If anything, "This Time Around" makes these darker themes more explicit.
The songs have titles like "You Never Know," "If Only" and "Dying to Be
Alive." Isaac, Taylor and Zac -- who all sing and play guitar, keyboards and
drums, respectively -- respond to uncertainty with an expressed
desire to fight, before it's too late, for a life created rather than received. "All
I know is that fear has got to go," Taylor insists on "This Time Around," the
album's marvelous first single. Later, on "Dying to Be Alive," he sings: "We all
come tumbling down/No matter how strong, we all turn to the ground ... you
can't just leave your life to fate." Throughout the song, Taylor's soul-inspired
shouts hit every bit as hard as the lyrics. (Now 17, he's three years older than
he was on the first record, and his voice sounds at least that much more
mature.) Admittedly, Hanson's self-composed songs never arrive at any
conclusions you haven't heard before, but as life lessons go, carpe diem isn't a bad one.
"This Time Around" does find Hanson tinkering, just a bit, with their sound.
Since their debut, teen pop has all but taken over the radio -- a disastrous
turn that's often traced, unfairly, back to Hanson's earlier success. But to
distinguish themselves from Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, Hanson
have beefed up their sound. Melodic rock 'n' soul remains the focus, but it's
now executed with blazing guitars (teen bluesman Jonny Lang appears on a
couple of tracks), beefier drums and samples from sometime Beck sidekick DJ
Swamp. Occasionally the changes smack of an attempt at hipster cred, and
sometimes they make an occasional foray into Blues Traveler-ish groove rock
(that band's harmonica-playing frontman, John Popper, is here, too). But
even these missteps -- more senior project than sophomore slump -- are
salvaged by the trio's unerring knack for the irresistible pop chorus.
The biggest disappointments are sonic. The crunchy chords on a wonderful
power-pop number called "Runaway Run," for instance, need to explode out
of the speakers, not dribble. The gospel choir on "Dying to Be Alive" (headed
by Sly & the Family Stone's Rose Stone) should release the song
heavenward, but the voices are buried so far back in the mix that their
ascension feels more rumored than achieved. Time and again, the songs and
their arrangements are spot-on, but then Stephen Lironi's wall-of-sludge
production dulls the effect of the instrumental hooks. (Personal to Isaac,
Taylor and Zac: Next time out, you guys might want to consider someone
like Adam Schmitt to produce a few tracks. Hunt down a copy of his great
1991 album "World So Bright," and you'll hear precisely the blend of
sweet-and-rough you were born to make.)
In other words, "This Time Around" falls prey to some of the very problems
that plague so much current popular music. But in more significant ways,
Hanson rises above their moment: earnest, instead of winking; explicitly
connected to a rock 'n' soul tradition that's supposed to be passi; unafraid
to offer ambivalence, rather than naive happy endings. "If only I had the
guts to feel this way," they sing, and while the boys' future remains a "secret
that no one knows" (as "MMMBop" phrased it), you have to feel optimistic
that guts -- at least of the emotional variety -- aren't going to be an issue.
The more pressing question is whether they'll find an audience with the
courage to really listen.