Hanson has sought to transcend its original popularity as a late nineties boy band in recent years. Its newest album, String Theory, a double-length album consisting partially of reworkings of previous hits accompanied to a string orchestra, may first sound like a curiosity best left ignored. The group originally found fame with its No. 1 hit single “MMMBop,” a pop record released while the three brothers, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson, were teenagers and younger. Written by the young trio from Oklahoma, the song sparkles due to its irresistible melodies and exuberance and its idiosyncratic, but undeniably catchy nonsensical hook.
Such an experimental album two decades after the group’s original success could be compared to Michael Jordan attempting to make the modern NHL or the cast of Friends reuniting for a dramatic sequel about middle-aged life. These new renditions of old favorites occasionally shine, however, and add new flavor to the original standard. While sometimes overly sappy, the songs often evoke more emotion due to the richer sound coming from the string and percussion accompaniment, especially when compared to the more pop-sounding fare of years past. While they may not have the same youthful joy that brought them their original popularity, their lyrics sound much more pertinent and real from their deeper, more adult voices.
Most of the attention from fans will be on their new edition of their most popular song, “MMMBop”—its original renown may have had little to do with its lyrics, but its focus on the ebbs and flows of human relationships belied their adolescence and almost seemed out of place coming from the mouths of someone their age. When the 14-year-old Taylor Hanson informed listeners that “You have so many relationships in this life, Only one or two will last,” the listener could easily mock the naivete, especially from Hanson’s prepubescent vocals over the upbeat production. The now-married Hanson’s crooning over soft acoustic guitar and a rising string section now brings a tremendous sense of pathos. The famous hook, where the brothers repeat the song’s title, transforms from a previously whimsical embrace of the various moments in life to a more resigned acceptance that life is ultimately fleeting.
The album starts with an original song, “Reaching for the Sky,” a two-part emotional tune set to piano that concludes on the opening of the second side. Both times, the song tries to create a feeling of emotional depth to the album. The effect works far better on the first side, which is followed by an uplifting original and highlight, “Joyful Noises,” then on the second side, a new version of “This Time Around” where the orchestra serves as more of a distraction than a welcome addition, making the song significantly busier. The first side concludes with a new rendition of “Me, Myself, and I,” a melodramatic ode to defeating loneliness. The final track of the album, “Tonight,” fails in comparison to “Me, Myself, and I” as a bookend to “Reaching for the Sky,” with its more upbeat themes contrasting with the poignancy of the opener.
Ultimately, String Theory runs into a snag that often hinders the listenability of albums released by more contemporary artists-the album’s 23 songs are far too many for anyone beyond the most die-hard of “Fansons.” The album does not flow well as a cohesive unit with its alternating of power ballads and more joyful fare, sometimes on consecutive songs. The tracks start to sound extremely repetitive and many, such as the new edition of “Yearbook” (men in their thirties singing about a high school yearbook sounds ridiculous) and the previously mentioned “This Time Around” should have been rejected in the studio.
Perhaps the decision to create a two-sided album would have had more utility if it had been employed to divide the two moods, but instead it just works to create more confusion. The album may have been more enjoyable if they had decided to stick with a more consistently upbeat sonic arrangement, but the deeper, more soulful serenades frequently drown out the previous songs. The original fare is usually clearly weaker, while many of the older songs did not really need to be recreated in this fashion. While Hanson tries hard, and sometimes succeeds, its experiment ultimately fails primarily because it does not give itself enough reason to exist.
Featured Image by Universal Music Group