If you had a baby at the time of the release of singer-songwriter Justin Roberts’ first kids’ album Great Big Sun, that baby would be 25 years old now. Roberts has released an additional 15 albums geared towards that younger audience, which is quite an achievement. It’s not easy sustaining interest in a long career in family-friendly pop, considering that some of your audience will eventually age out of the demographic. By the time the next album rolls around, some of your fans may have started using their Spotify accounts to discover old punk. But a little kid who grew up listening to Great Big Sun could also be eager to introduce their child to Space Cadet. Roberts is a parent now, giving him the luxury of an at-home screening process for his songs. He can likely keep this up as long as he likes, maybe even another 25 years or until he becomes a grandfather.
Roberts gathered quite a lineup for Space Cadet. There are his usual suspects, the Not Ready for Naptime Players, including Liam David, Gerland Dowd, Jacqueline Schimmel, and David Winer. But then he’s brought along a string section, a horn section, synthesizers courtesy of Christian Matthew Cullen, and even Jason Adasiewicz of Delmark records on the vibraphone! Roberts uses all the different talent well, expanding Space Cadet‘s overall sound palette. Advertised as “power pop for kids”, the songs come across like an aged-down Fountains of Wayne, with Roberts’ nasally vocals embodying some paradoxical warmth.
The arrangements are tights, and each song comes hook-ready. His lyrics hit the sweet spot, north of anything kids would find patronizing but below anything that could fly over their heads. Roberts isn’t heavily into wordplay, but he’ll bend them to his clever will when needed. “Now there were times I tried to be a horse / But everyone found out, of course,” he sings on “I Have Been a Unicorn”, a song that celebrates what it means to be born and to remain unique.
Like many “kindie” albums, Space Cadet is a positive product overall. That doesn’t automatically make Roberts reluctant to tackle the topics that are, ostensibly, less sunny. With “Truman Was a Tornado” and the title track, he appears to be reassuring kids of the ADD and ADHD persuasion that they will be okay. “Every day he tried to explain / Words were swirling all around his head,” goes the story of a storm named Truman. “Moving like a hurricane / Truman wished that they could see instead.” “Space Cadet” revels in the absent-mindedness, framing it as an excuse to daydream: “My teacher tells me that I’m out to lunch (but I’m not) / No, I’m just firing up the engines / Getting ready set.”
The optimistically-titled “Whole Lotta Love in this World” acknowledges that “There will be times when it gets dark / All that you’ve lost will leave its mark.” The somber ukulele figure of “Little Red Wagon” sounds so serious that you’d think that Roberts was dragging a heavy metaphor along in said wagon. Alas, it’s just about the simple pleasures of friendship and how, sometimes, good times can be communicated in silence.
“Gimme a Fire Truck” doesn’t ask for much more than what’s in the title. Roberts’ son’s mood was lifted one day when he spotted a fire truck, so Roberts captured the pure joy of spotting fire trucks into this horn-driven number. “Seven Billion Billion Billion Atoms in Me” is an unlikely singalong rejoicing in how acorns, north winds, bumblebees, and astronauts are all made out of the same biological stuff. “Dance Party” is about, well, having a dance party in your living room.
Robert dedicates the final track, “Everybody Get on Board”, to his late father. The lyrics read like a fun bus ride, but the solemn piano playing that serves as a foundation suggests room for grieving. “We’ll take the sinners and the saints / Sometimes you’re perfect / Other times you ain’t.” It’s less a command and more an anthem for inclusion, which is not surprising when you stop and ponder the Everyone-in-the-Pool mindset of today’s “kindie” movement. Whether you’re five or 25, Roberts won’t sing down to you. Never indulgent and always disarming, Space Cadet is a fun little journey that may even entertain the childless, should they seek it out. How has Roberts’ career made it this far? Because, when you get right down to it, he seems designed for it.