You guys! It’s time to talk about Hanson again! Yes!!
This is the greatest day of my life. Hanson, you guys! Hanson.
Of course I am excited to talk about Hanson again. Why would I not be. I am a big proponent of happiness, as well as joy and groovy good times. The Brothers Hanson provide all three of these things in spades. Skip-to-my-loo tippie toe music. Gosh! It’s Hanson, fellas!
We all remember how the Hanson story began, don’t we. Of course we do. Actually, it’s likely the only part of the Hanson story anybody knows: bunch of cute long-haired blonde kiddos score a #1 hit Jackson-5-for-the-90s style with “MMMBop,” become a teenybopper sensation for about a year, earn occasional critical praise and a hot heaping of scorn from the adult public at large for looking like girls and playing happy music. Inadvertently kick off the Teen Pop Tidal Wave of the late 90s, allowing Germany’s finest hunks and most fabulous ladies to bring America to its collective knees.
Our boys try to soldier on, but all is not well. Taylor’s voice dramatically cracks and lowers in the middle of a 1998 House of Blues performance of “Man From Milwaukee,” forcing him to cover his mouth and run wheezing offstage while Zac faints on his drumkit and Isaac screams racial epithets at a heartbroken teenage audience. Amidst the unchained clamor of thousands of young girls bawling in unison, the boys rush backstage to find Taylor squatting naked in the bathtub, his long blonde locks ripped from his head and droplets of blood falling from his mouth. “And when you get old and start losing your hair… tell me, who will still care?” he whispers before ripping the shower curtains down and slamming the door in his stunned brothers’ faces. The two dare not open the door again.
Taylor goes missing. Perplexed but undaunted, Zac and Isaac form the post-grunge power trio Thrustfall with eventual Calling lead singer Alex Band in an obvious attempt to shed the stigma of their teen pop roots. While their 1999 debut full-length The Harder We Fall is a moderate hit on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, with single (and tribute to the lost Taylor) “America’s Boy Face (Don’t Lose The Race)” gaining notable radio airplay, the group is still haunted by the shadows of “MMMBop” and their fallen brother. Constant infighting between the two brothers forces Band to leave the group. “There can’t just be two Hanson brothers,” he tells reporters. “They need their prodigal son. Please return to us, sweet Taylor. You are America’s soul.”
Cut to 2003. Backstage at the House of Blues. Zac and Isaac prep to perform as a duo, aptly titled “Twanson.” Just as they’re ready to stroll onstage, a paunchy bald gentleman adorned in white robes approaches them. The boys stare into his dour, haggard face, deep wrinkles accentuating his half-formed smile. “No,” Zac says, his heart heavy with pain. “Taylor. Taylor, it can’t be-”
…oh. Hm. No this is not the actual story. At some point this turned into an excerpt from my alternate universe Hanson fanscript.
No, the post-“MMMBop” Hanson story is one of perseverance and humility. Dependability. Love. The media backlash Hanson faced in the late 90s was so overwhelming that I am shocked they even managed to keep their bearings long enough to record another album. Where can your career go after your first single becomes not only a #1 international hit, but an obnoxious jokey punchline all in one year? Mad TV parodies and Geocities hatesites and Denis Leary rants, oh my. Teen pop stigma weighed heavily on Hanson in the late 90s, and the nefarious “one hit wonder” tag had already been stapled to they nice boy faces.
Now, I don’t want to dig too deep into weird anti-Hanson shit from the late 90s, ’cause I mostly covered that in the Middle Of Nowhere review. So I won’t do that again. What is interesting is that Hanson were – and still are – considered not only the forebears of frothy disposable late-90s teen pop, but the absolute essence of it. You think late 90s teen pop, you think Hanson. All Signs Point To Taylor. Those three grinning blonde kiddos sum it all up, don’t they? Don’t you just hate them and want to punch them and stuff??
But this was obviously not the case. The boy bands that followed in Hanson’s wake ripped off the superficial elements of their appeal – prettyboy looks, brightly produced pop songs – and gauded them up for the ever-empowered TRL generation. But they left behind the 60s AM radio worship and the funky organ jams and the effervescent youthful joy of life. Not to mention (and forgive me if I sound like a purist here) the idea of being an actual band that plays instruments and writes their own material! That too!
And that was not the goal. No sir. Hanson were, in my eyes, a few hard-working musician kids from Tulsa who wanted to be the next Three Dog Night and ended up birthing Dream Street instead. A strange and painful burden for a trio with an average age of 15. They found themselves thrust into a teen pop phenomenon I imagine they wanted little or nothing to do with by the end of the decade – and, as it would sadly turn out, a phenomenon that wanted little or nothing to do with Hanson.
But y’know, they were still a bunch of kids. They went with the flow. In the few years separating 1997’s Middle Of Nowhere and 2000’s This Time Around, Hanson went through the teen pop motions: Christmas album, live album, re-release of their old stuff album. CD-rack filler. Their record label was buying time, you see. Who knew what Hanson was up to? Three years is a long gap between records for a teen pop act. The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were putting out at least one record per year, you remember. Because who knew how long these guys would be popular for? Two years? Three?? Teen pop is a fickle mistress. Gotta make as much money as you can, bro. Squeeze that lemon. That lemon with money inside of it.
So what took Hanson so gosh-darned long to release a second album?? Well, there are sensible explanations, like the fact that their label Mercury Records merged with Island Def Jam and delayed the process. There’s that. But I also think Hanson needed a little time to figure things out. The teen pop landscape had shifted pretty drastically since Middle Of Nowhere. Hanson’s cutesy modern take on 60s bubblegum sounded downright quaint compared to the muscular psuedo-R&B coming from the new boy band breed, not to mention that both Taylor AND Zac’s voices were in awkward mid-drop. Maybe they would all grow up to be a bunch of poor-voiced creepers! Who knew? What Hanson needed to do was not only conquer their own painful public adolescence, but produce another major hit record in the process.
Boy Hanson needed to become… Man Hanson. Manson.
And how did they do it? If they did it at all?? Well.
THIS TIME AROUND: HANSON MACH II
Let me start off by saying this: This Time Around was, in its own way, the first of its kind. It was the first conscious attempt by a late-90s teen pop act to take a stab at gritty rock ‘n roll legitimacy, a move that boy bands wouldn’t start making for another couple of years or so. A stab at adulthood. Maturity. While the freewheeling pop spirit of Middle Of Nowhere is left intact, This Time Around does not sound like music for kids – or even teenagers, for that matter. It’s such a thoroughly successful reinvention that it’s almost weird.
So what’s different? How did Hanson manage to rip off their swimmies and touch the bottom of the 9ft deep end? What makes This Time Around different from Middle Of Nowhere.
Okay I want to get this one out of the way, because this was a legitimate concern back in the day. Soulful as his vocals may have been, Taylor Hanson was a cute-voiced kiddo in 1997, and it was hard to imagine his voice surviving puberty. It was so high, for gosh sake! So kiddy and nasally. Isaac was already legal adult at this point and Zac barely sang lead, so the burden was on 17-year-old Taylor’s shoulders to not entirely fuck up Hanson’s future success with his new weird adult voice.
So how does he sound now. One listen to This Time Around‘s opening soul-ripper “You Never Know” reveals the answer: good. Good! Hey, the kid sounds GOOD!
I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to credit a lot of This Time Around‘s success to Taylor’s seamless vocal transition into adulthood. Lower, more personable, less amateurish on record. Not only does he sound better, but his newfound soul rasp is a perfect fit for This Time Around‘s classicist pop-rock. Our boy has become a man. We should all be so proud.
NO OUTSIDE SONGWRITERS
This is another big one. Middle Of Nowhere was stuffed to the brim with professional outside songwriters, prompting more than a few cynics to peg Hanson as a bunch of kiddy pre-fab frauds. Sure, “MMMBop” was all theirs, but even then the Dust Brothers had an unmistakable producer’s credit. I am certain this rankled the Hanson Three to some extent, and they sought out to prove that they could win the hearts of young ladies all by themselves this time around (title pun not intended).
And they did it! Again! Damnit, they really did. “All songs written by Hanson.” Doesn’t that sound good? I mean – compare the above-linked ballad “Save Me” to the likes of, err, the Desmond Child-penned “Weird.” Which one sounds more genuine? More human? Less written by garbagey garbage man Desmond Child?? The answer is right in front of you, ladies and gentlemen.
ROCK ‘N ROLL!!
So let’s keep in mind where teen pop was in the year 2000. The absolute height of excess. The Backstreet Boys were still riding high off of Millennium‘s Max Martin Europop anthems along with Britney Spears’ Oops I Did It Again, while *NSYNC were killing teenage hearts with the funked-out New Jack terror that was No Strings Attached. “Larger Than Life” was the most expensive music video produced up to that point. If there was a year for a teen pop act to go on a cocaine-fueled glam rampage, it was the year 2000.
So smack-dab in the middle of teen pop’s most excessive year, Hanson released album title track “This Time Around”:
I will be honest with you – for years, I had no idea “This Time Around” was a Hanson song at all. It’s a straight up, simple rock track, one delivered by a trio of semi-adults who’ve listened to all the right records and have done their homework – but still as tuneful and radio-friendly as anything on Middle Of Nowhere. It’s the absolute culmination of Hanson’s transition from cutesy teen-pop stars to hard-working band rockers.
Gosh, it’s a good song. Hanson needed to do this, people. It was a natural progression. Most post-Hanson boy bands sounded kinda stupid trying to sound like gritty soul-rockers, but Hanson had been pushing in that direction for a while (“Speechless” on Middle Of Nowhere, etc). It made sense for them to write songs like “Runaway Run,” to cop Little Feat once in a while and feature Jonny Lang on guitar. You get the impression that this is music they genuinely loved and wanted to emulate, and it works. It does.
But there are… some problems.
NO MORE GOOFS
So. This Time Around was, in almost every regard, a step forward for these talented young Hanson men. But with maturity comes comfort. Ease. Respectability. Boredom.
Simply put, Hanson’s transition into adulthood came at the expense of a big chunk of their goofball kiddo personality. A hard pill for me to swallow. Yes, This Time Around feels less all over the place and more personable than Middle Of Nowhere, with more natural production and less record label fingerprints. But we don’t have the silly vocal Jackson 5 interplay between Taylor’s kid voice and Isaac’s big brother voice – the two sound almost painfully similar, practically interchangeable.
It changes the songs, too. You are not going to find a jumpy uppity pop tune like “A Minute Without You” on here, or an adorable kid-skippin-down-the-street travelogue like “Lucy,” or – most regrettably – a bug-eyed whackballs crazy kid alien song like “Man From Milwaukee.” Instead, you will find the subtle “Love Song,” the by-the-book funk workout “Can’t Stop,” the well-meaning acoustic jammer “Sure About It.”
None of these are bad songs. They’re not! But too many of them – especially in This Time Around‘s second half – don’t reach far beyond mere competence. A workmanlike band that knows how to hit all the right notes, but not much else. Considering the nasty backlash they faced after “MMMBop,” I don’t fault Hanson for abandoning the sillier aspects of their sound and image in an attempt to sound like respectable adults. I get it, guys. I do.
It’s just – it’s not as fun. It isn’t. It does nothing to my heart.
There is one glorious final stop on the Hanson Goof Trolley, however: “If Only,” This Time Around‘s one and only attempt to re-create the giddy glee of “MMMBop” with Hanson Mach II. Yes there are fake record-scratches. Yes there is John Popper on harmonica. Yes is the chorus one of God’s finest glories. Yes does it hug my heart and tickle its aortas. Yes is it perhaps my favorite Hanson single.
Yes let us listen to it right now please.
This Time Around is quality work. Probably too long at 51 minutes, but quality through and through. Easily the most admirable “gritting up” of a male teen pop group that I can imagine. Good work gang!
But you might notice that nowhere did I discuss This Time Around‘s commercial performance. Funny! Because that’s something I usually mention a lot!
Let me put it this way. This Time Around performed. “If Only” was a #1 TRL hit, and “This Time Around” was a staple of pop radio for some time. The Hanson brand still had some life left in it. But the group was met with little more than an accepting shrug commercially, and This Time Around‘s sales dried up quick, to the point where their label tragically pulled sponsorship of their tour. Mid-tour. These poor beggar kids were forced to pay for the rest of their tour out of their own pocket. No bullshit!
Ultimately, while This Time Around was a success on all fronts, it was only a modest one. As good as it was, Hanson’s music did not fit into the 2000 pop landscape. Even if their new record saw some genuine critical acclaim and didn’t turn them into a teen pop cautionary tale like so many thought it would – nobody cared. Hanson were no longer a household name. That was it.
But it’s OK, folks. As we will soon see, humility was Hanson’s game all along. Good as it was, This Time Around‘s mannered soul-pop was destined more for cult appreciation than chart domination, and they must have known this at the time. For better or for worse, Hanson would not release another record for another four years, and would never make a stab at teen pop stardom again – which, in a strange development, would only make them better.
Oh also, they jammed with a dude from the Grateful Dead back in 1999. That also happened.