Josh Groban? Not a total dork. That’s the big news whenever the self-described ”tenor in training” releases an album. (All That Echoes is his sixth, out now on Reprise.) And every journalist thinks he’s breaking that story. ”Josh Groban Is Not a Tool,” reads one headline from Details. ”Josh Groban = damn funny,” insists another from GQ. So let’s get this over with. Yes, the same guy who was once dubbed ”our national choirboy” hangs out with indie-rock bands like Grizzly Bear. He sings Kanye West’s tweets on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (”Fur pillowwws are haaaaard to actually sleep on.”) He sends up his own MILF-chew-toy image by playing nerdy, I-spit-combed-my-hair roles on The Office and in Crazy, Stupid, Love. In one Funny or Die video, he interviews himself, gushing, ”My mom’s a big fan!” In the CollegeHumor comedy Coffee Town, due later this year, he plays a barista who wants to be a pop singer but isn’t talented enough.
Groban might’ve been the first of what I like to call the ”croonermedians” — those adult-contemporary smoothies who want to prove they’re edgy enough for SNL guest spots. (See also: Michael Bublé, John Mayer.) That’s a smart persona to have, because it doubles the size of his audience: For the sweet-tempered ladies who’ve seen him on Oprah but would never watch his raunchy comedies, he exists only as the heartthrob who serenades them during their bubble baths. For the college kids who’ve seen his Robot Chicken cameo but can’t bring themselves to play his music, he exists only as the cool, funny guy.
But will his music ever be cool or funny? When he teamed up with Rick Rubin, the King Midas of hipster cred, on 2010’s Illuminations, it became his only album not to go multiplatinum. On All That Echoes he covers the obscure Danish rock band Choir of Young Believers, hires onetime Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain, and taps producer Rob Cavallo, who regularly works with Green Day. But there’s nothing punk rock about this orchestra-conducting, Italian-duetto-singing, Adam’s-apple-quivering epic. Echoes is so serious, it could use some of Groban’s famous levity. Only its piano-tinkling take on Jimmy Webb’s ”The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” feels like a wink: The song was inspired by a sci-fi book about a computer with self-awareness and a sense of humor. (Just like Groban — the opera-bot who learned how to laugh!) And his Celtic rendition of the standard ”She Moved Through the Fair” is amusing, mostly because it suggests that his lady and her mom must compete for his affections. ”My old love said to me/My mother won’t mind,” he bellows. Ladies! Don’t fight! Between Earnest Groban and Wisecracker Groban, there’s enough of this guy to go around. Now, if only he could bring those two sides together, his music might finally be as cool as he is.