If you, like Nick Jonas, are a pop star, and last year was uncomplicated — if it was rote, perhaps, or merely pleasant — fire your team. Complication is the playing field. The game is embedding those complications into your art, or standing by while fans and critics do this for you. The title of Jonas’ sophomore secular effort, Last Year Was Complicated — chosen with Hova’s assist — nods to the first strategy. This isn’t a new tack for him: the video for 2014’s “Jealous” employed frequent shots of the singer’s girlfriend at the time, cellist/model Olivia Culpo.
“Jealous” didn’t need personal verisimilitude to become a hit: Its steam-eared portrait of entitlement, pinned by ennobling piano chords, felt true enough. Those chords make a cameo on Complicated’s second single “Chainsaw,” in which Jonas ponders destroying a house that’s no longer a home. He stews stirringly, slapped snares echo; you can sing “Jealous” over everything but the part where he sings about putting a sign in his yard, presumably so he can rid himself of the things that remind him of his ex. (Craigslist is complicated.) The destruction continues on “Unhinged,” an R&B-adjacent ballad with bravura vocal approaches: a wordless, circular passage to start; a dip into dolefulness as he shrugs “right now my head isn’t screwed on right”.
So he’s processing. “You’re not the first to try and diagnose what’s wrong with me,” he taunts in “Unhinged”; in the hazy “Don’t Make Me Choose,” he assures his lover that “I can compartmentalize.” This is Jonas’ complication: talking his way into, and then through, sexual minefields. The theme suits his peculiar pipes — the jutted-jaw pout, the texture he scratches into his more insistent notes — which, in turn, take the burden from the compositions. Nothing here is as ecstatic as “Levels,” a pure-pop pulsation that, on its way to climax, featured a cameo from the Christ. A grouchier version of that pulse shows up on the second song of 2016 to be titled “Champagne Problems”: a celebration becomes a wake and suddenly reverts, a muffled drum track suggests drunk subcontractors moving furniture around. The fluttering, Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “Bacon” focuses on a silly throwaway (“Aw s**t, throw some bacon on it”), possibly to distract from the preceding pull quote (“I got sleep eyes / I woke up like this”), which is Beyoncé’s. But if anything requires distance, it’s opener “Voodoo,” where Nick’s strained vocal is in a three-way race with the titular conceit and the South Asian motif for most exasperating element.
This kind of crazy/beautiful dichotomy is pop’s favorite way to designate depth. So while it’s no wonder that Jonas — a mere 23 — dips into this well frequently, a handful of cuts centered around satisfaction offer a path out. The rutting, acoustic-framed “Touch” pulls from the Robin Thicke playbook, depicting the kind of intimacy where you’re free to be as corny as possible. “I go from touchin’ you with both hands / To touchin’ you with no hands,” he coos. He’s talking about boning, or perhaps vibrational medicine.
Closer “Comfortable” finds him checking back into the game, even going so far to excerpt a huge chunk of Allen Iverson’s immortal “Practice” monologue. (Astoundingly for 2016, Iverson doesn’t get a writing credit.) And on “Close,” the record’s first big hit, Jonas and Tove Lo sing an erotic shanty as the they lurch around Mattman & Robin’s haunted tropical house. There’s no furniture, no booze: just two people trapped in a paradox of motion. They’re trying desperately to connect, but it’s not clear they’re doing more than flexing biceps at each other and howling. It’s quite complicated.