The Jonas Brothers have grown up, gotten married, started wearing floral shirts, and switched from guitar-heavy pop-rock to falsetto-heavy pop-R&B. But they remain dorks.
To understand the Jonases, study the overdubbed dialogue in their 2008 campfire singalong “Lovebug.” Taking seriously his obligation to be the Cute One and a serious artist at the same time, Nick Jonas strains to craft the perfect chirpy acoustic trifle, except his damn brothers keep getting in the way. Snippets of a casual conversation they might have had in the studio keep interrupting what would otherwise be a nothing song. They laugh. They slap each other on the back and make brotherly remarks. They say, “Get off that cake.” “Lovebug” creates the impression that the music came about naturally, almost accidentally, just because three brothers in a boy band were horsing around.
The brothers’ fifth album and first in a decade, Happiness Begins displays the same playful collaborative spirit. It’s smooth, buttery, electronic, radiant with the heat of summer. The album’s second single, “Cool,” sways over lightly polished guitar chords and staggered handclaps, as Nick and Joe trade oohs and ahhs. The jaunty melody, group chants, and descending falsetto chorus (“Coo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ool”) suggest the boys are singing a beloved’s praises, perhaps with nostalgic overtones. Then you realize it’s about how cool the Jonas Brothers are, which only heightens the song’s celebratory zeal. “When I grow up, I wanna be just like me!” Nick announces while combing his hair with his hand in the mirror. The goofiest of boasts, “Cool” is gleefully corny.
Since the Jonases became stars during the height of the Disney Channel’s fascination with pop-punk, their bulky power chords and dramatic breakdowns were always more fraught than seemed strictly necessary for such wholesome, adorable young men, beset by an amusingly secondhand emo anxiety. Happiness Begins inhabits a new mood: sunny, sweet, simple, relaxed, carefree. Their confidence is a delight—they’re so excited about soft R&B shimmer, jumpy space-funk, and blocky reggaeton beats that even the token boring slow song (“Love Her”) includes a lilting, echoey, lovely guitar hook.
Nick and Joe used to sing in pop-emo’s characteristically nasal hunk-whine, but years of solo stardom have sanded the edges off their voices to reveal a velvety gloss. Lead single “Sucker” moves with slinky efficiency, as whistles, keyboard vrooms, and Kevin’s marvelous, impassive bass undercut the brothers’ confession of infatuation. (“I’ve been dancing on top of cars,” admits Joe, like anyone in love.) The glittering “Strangers” builds, with daft energy, to a chorus whose sleek guitar soar overtakes Joe’s voice. The lyrics either discuss a one-night stand where the sex is so good the couple must have known each other in another lifetime, or reconnecting creatively with your brothers after a long hiatus. If these are indeed different topics.
Although the standard boy-band dynamic persists to an extent, blood runs deeper than glitter. That the Jonases are brothers opens a space for male intimacy that would be unavailable, even unseemly, for straight boys who were merely friends or bandmates. Their male-bonded camaraderie is the secret to the tingly romantic magic that animates their music: however much you long for the cutest brother, even if you marry him, you’ll never belong to their exclusive brotherly music club. Where Joe’s songs with DNCE and Nick’s solo music especially presented individual personalities and hence coded as expressive/confessional, together they pursue an ideal of group fun; even the love songs to their wives are treated as group collaborations where everyone chips in, and hence become formal exercises, three boys teaming up to write a wife song.
The album is refreshingly free of ballads—whenever one brother runs out of steam, another takes over, and the hooks just keep bouncing. “Only Human” is their bubbliest, friskiest groove, keyed to a frivolous synth-vibraphone hook that should sound dinky and instead pulls the brothers up from their seats and onto the dancefloor. It segues nicely into “I Believe,” a quiet, elegant wisp of desire and gratitude, the softcore love song Nick’s been trying to write since he went solo. Through a cloud of purple-tinted smoke, he murmurs his feelings before the drum machine’s beating heart subsumes him.
From Selena Gomez to Miley Cyrus, the pop charts abound with Disney Channel alumni having repackaged themselves as serious adult individuals, but only the Jonases have attempted a back-to-basics move—musically different, but presented as a return to play, a return to community. There’s no reason solo careers are incompatible with pop exhilaration, but when one boy sings alone, the song rides or dies with his personality; you have to like him. When three pitch in, all that matters is that they like each other. On Happiness Begins, they’re so much sillier, warmer, more arrogant, more enthusiastic, delighted with themselves and each other.