Originally published on CastAlbums.org.
Many of us first fell in love with Jason Robert Brown‘s music through the cast recording of his first show, the revue Songs for a New World. His ability to create entire worlds through words and music, telling complete stories in three-minute chunks, lent itself extraordinarily well to cast recordings and concerts — as the concert revival of the show now playing at New York City Center is demonstrating to a new generation.
It’s fitting that Brown has followed a bit of the singer-songwriter path with frequent concert appearances (including a cabaret residency at Subculture) and the occasional album. That How We React and How We Recover, his first studio album since 2005 (with a 2011 concert album in between), drops the same weekend as the Songs revival invites comparison, although given the subjects treated in both that comparison is inevitable: if Songs is about turning-point moments in one’s life (often filtered through the somewhat wide-eyed optimism of a writer in his 20s), React/Recover is about the turning point moment we all find ourselves in at this moment in history, filtered through the eyes of a writer in his 40s trying to reclaim the optimism of his youth.
A number of the songs on the new album are “issue songs,” open-heartedly addressing politics in a way that only musical theatre writers (and perhaps folk singers) would dare. “Hope,” the opening track (also the title track of Betty Buckley‘s latest), was written the morning after the last presidential election and initially debuted on social media as Brown added his voice to a nation trying to come to terms with what we have come to begrudgingly call the Trump Era. At the time, it felt raw and sad and maybe even a little foolish to contemplate hope. This new recording, built on the knowledge that hope and strength have been both so necessary and at times so hard to muster, makes a good case for the song as the un-anthem for our time.
Don’t worry, the entire album isn’t so heavy. Brown kicks things into high gear with the salsa-infused “Melinda,” a song evocative of New York in the 70s that he debuted at one of those Subculture shows in 2015. The song features a sizzling horn section that makes it clear there’s more to this album than Brown’s typical piano-rock. “Invisible,” the next track, doubles down on that assertion with its pulsing rhythm guitar, strings, and chorus backing Brown. This track feels a bit like Brown making a play at the show choir market with a number for teens who wanted to perform “You Will Be Found” but their teacher just couldn’t take one more minute of Dear Evan Hansen. (Such show choirs would not be making a bad choice!)
A pair of songs about family and legacy — “Fifty Years Long” and “Hallowed Ground” — showcase a more mature Brown than the one we know from his previous work, gently contemplating romantic longevity and the parent-child relationship. Don’t worry, though; the poet-laureate of adultury follows them up with “One More Thing Than I Can Handle,” a monologue-in-song from the perspective of a potential mistress deciding to turn down the opportunity for an affair becuase it feels like too much work. Katie McGarry’s performance here is more jazzy and subdued than the blazing reading Anika Noni Rose gave the song on Brown’s previous album, but the take works. And credit where it’s due: a song about deciding not to engage in an extramarital affair is certainly a change of pace for the writer of The Last Five Years and The Bridges of Madison County. (Seriously, though, it’s a gorgeous song, if you tune out the lyrics.)
The back half of the album suffers a bit with songs like “All Things in Time,” which feels like several songs Brown has written to better effect before (and not only because it was performed by Rose on Brown’s previous album) and “A Song About Your Gun,” which comes from a noble instinct but misses an opportunity to say something new or at least meaningful about the US’s gun epidemic.
“Everybody Knows” is a sweet story song about unrequited love that feels instantly dated by its attempts to incorporate meme culture into its narrative. I could do without “The Hardest Hill,” another entry in Brown’s ever-growing catalog of songs about how hard it is to remain in relationships.
The album ends on a high point, though, with the soul-infused “Caravan of Angels” (another carryover from his 2011 live album) and the peppy “Wait ‘Til You See What’s Next,” a cut song from Prince of Broadway channeling Hal Prince‘s optimistic, forward-looking outlook.
While I am pretty much a sucker for any opportunity to hear a musical theatre composer sing his or her own work, Brown’s albums offer more than novelty. He’s a compelling performer, moreso now than ever as he keeps his performance muscles trained through frequent concerts. He knows how to make the most of his musicians so his arrangements feel part and parcel with the songs themselves. While some may want this purely for the keepsake of the cut song from Prince of Broadway or the early versions of numbers from projects in development, it stands alone as a solid recital album worth having.