The album starts out with gentle synth droning over a snapping snare beat and singer Ben Thornewill crooning a reflective verse. Then the guitars, the keys, the bass drum, everything kicks into a higher, poppier gear — the band's joyous default setting, as it were. Hook-laden and catchier than hell, the leadoff track on Jukebox the Ghost's eponymous 2014 album is a undeniable kaleidoscopic hit. The title? "Sound of a Broken Heart," which reveals much more about the album at hand than its face value would seem.
"Let's make it simple, let's make it easy on each other," singer Tommy Siegel croons on the second cut, "Made for Ending," another downtrodden title belied by its upbeat composition and danceable rhythms.
The current era of Jukebox the Ghost — one that comes after some 10 years of jamming around the DC metro area and blowing up the regional and, later, national touring circuit — is one that tackles the crushing realities of adulthood with sugary beats. Thing is, though, that's just how the guys see the world.
"The three of us have very different music tastes, but that's one of the things that we can agree on aesthetically. We really like when pop music is paired with slightly darker or more melancholy lyrics. There's something really nice about that pairing to us," Siegel tells Scene, "us" referring to himself on guitar and vocals, Thornewill on keys and vocals, and Jesse Kristin on drums. "That's kinda where we're coming from. It allows us to inject a little more of our own lives into our music."
The three guys have been playing together as a trio since 2004. They started out writing songs and gigging casually around George Washington University. For a time, they hadn't even considered recording an album. But lo and behold, the call of the studio — and a friend's encouragement — pushed them to record in their senior year.
By the late 2000s, their music and touring had picked up the attention of Ben Folds, who invited them for a stint on the road. A 2009 run through the U.K. earned them even more acclaim. And back home in the States, the band's sound dovetailed perfectly into a wide variety of summertime festivals. "It's been a lucky thing playing with the same dudes for that long," Siegel says.
Early on, the band bounced irreverent ideas off their music and let the abstract wanderings of life in one's 20s dominate the conversation. Songs like "Miss Templeton's 7,000th Dream," which blends into "Static to the Heart" on 2008's Live and Let Ghosts, and "Where Are All the Scientists Now?" reveal a band celebrating its own youthful glow and the wonders of the world around them.
Siegel says their first few albums were reflections of their live sets: rocking songs that segue into one another and beckon the audience for whoops and hollers. These days, all of that is still there, but the party is cast in more reflective tones.
As the band approached the current self-titled release, they saw a heavy emphasis on songwriting unfold in their rehearsals. Rather than pure instrumentation with a look toward the stage, they wanted to get everything honed down to a feel-good spot behind the mics. With some 50 demos on hand, they whittled the list down to a solid 11 that each took all sorts of different paths in the writing and recording process.
"Everything was fair game. That was what was different this time," Siegel says. For instance, a guitar-driven demo might turn into a piano-led ballad, or vice versa. With producer Dan Romer (A Great Big World, Ingrid Michaelson) working the soundboard, the guys in Jukebox felt good about letting his ear guide them more than they had with previous producers on other albums.
"This time was more about letting go of the reins and just seeing what Dan and Andre (Dawson, who has produced Kanye West, Beyoncé, and fun.) — the two producers we worked with — what they had to bring to the song," Siegel says. The influences are clear, drawing on the style crafted by these musicians over the past 10 years and blending in cinematic pop production (think fun.'s Some Nights, for instance).
The result is a finely tuned collection of songs that gets Jukebox the Ghost to where they were headed in the first place.
Check out "When the Nights Get Long," which evokes the narrator's yearning by drifting between slower verses and jauntier choruses. Later, in "Show Me Where it Hurts," the guys tone things down a bit and let the raindrop twinkling of Thornewill's keys reflect the schism of a young relationship. Throughout the bulk of the album, though, it remains tough not to tap your foot along with the band's exploration of woes and wonder.
Is this latest album — or even the song itself — really the "sound of a broken heart?" Take it from Siegel & Co.: One way to grow up is to dance, dance against the dying of the light.