Right Where They Want Him
Jesse McCartney is a Lunchable: pre-packaged to the point of absurdity. This is something that’s affected him his whole life, from his time with pre-teen boy-band Dream Street to his acting work on the WB’s semi-hit show Summerland to his 2004 prepubescent-Timberlake debut album, Beautiful Soul. It seems that McCartney hasn’t had many oppotunities to express himself in any type of original format. All he seemed to have going for him was his good looks and fortunate last name (and no, he’s not the son of the Beatle), as his singing voice was about as strong as Britney Spears’s—and that’s not saying much.
Yet there was room for a change: a quick scan reveals that the young pop star has had a hand co-writing all but one of Right Where You Want Me‘s dozen tracks (unlike only four on his debut), and even had an assist from Grammy-winning teen-pop guru John Shanks (Michelle Branch, Ashlee Simpson) on two songs. Could he pull through and actually define himself as a unique artist in the cluttered landscape of TRL-fueled teen pop, and perhaps release an album that is more than just a traffic-jam of calculated rhyme schemes and major-label marketing?
Let’s put it this way: Dream Street actually did some of its earliest promotional work with Lunchables! Why is this being brought to your attention? Because that trivia factoid is more interesting than anything off of Right Where You Want Me.
Though McCartney may have graced these tracks with his own insight, it sounds absolutely no different than your second-run Max Martin pop song. The album is slickly produced and covers subject matters ranging from wanting a girl, wanting a girl to want you, wondering if anyone else in the world has felt lonely, and so on. What’s worse is the expected heart-wrenching song, “Invincible”, tackling the subject of a DUI-related death of a close friend of McCartney’s. All the elements are in place: the lavish string quartet, the soft-spoken piano melody, the sad lyrics about families crying, and the use of the word ‘damn,’ etc. Yet it’s Mr. Dream Street’s delivery that kills any chance for empathy—dry, bland, and entirely unemotional. One gets the image of Jesse with a studio lyric sheet in front of him simply going through the motions. Instead of feeling your tears being jerked, you instead feel your finger twitch for the fast-forward button.
Being a typical pop album, however, there are a few catchy moments, usually in the choruses. The lead single title track is actually quite good and hooky, and you only feel cheated when you realize that it’s actually the best song on the album… and it’s the first track.
Lunchables are widely criticized for using non-organic ingredients, leading to high sodium content. What’s interesting about this LP is that instead of the faux-Timberlake stepping of Beautiful Soul‘s Diet Dance Floor beats, here dry acoustic guitars are the primary instruments. This makes for a few pleasant moments, like “We Can Go Anywhere” and the laid-back “Anybody”, but countless others fall painfully flat (take the anyone-could-have-sung-this feel of “Right Back in the Water”).
The saving grace of this album—aside from the title track—remains Shanks’s contributions. Though “Blow Your Mind” apes Maroon 5 pretty blatantly, the rock-guitar drive of “Can’t Let You Go” features something painfully missing from the rest of the album: energy. The wannabe Shanks track and album closer, “Daddy’s Little Girl”, features surf guitar and ? & the Mysterians-styled keyboards for some reason, but that track is more of an oddity than an original entity.
Ultimately, Right Where You Want Me is a typical post-millennial teen pop album: calculated to death. Despite a few moments of delicious junk food, McCartney just doesn’t fill you up. Like all Lunchables, this album will soon expire past a certain date and be forgotten in the bowels of pop history. Tasty as a snack, but he’s got a long way to go before becoming a meal.
// Notes from the Road
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