oor Nick Lachey. For the last few years—in the public eye, at least—he’s been little more than Jessica Simpson’s hunky handbag. As if that wasn’t indignity enough (for a man whose old band, 98° had outsold his then fiancée’s, now wife’s record), she became the superstar for being little more than a daffy—if endearing—I Love Lucy-esque character whose extraordinary malapropisms and pratfalls captured a nation, not to mention the renewed interest in her hysterical ballads. Meanwhile, Lachey was resigned to stand in the background playing the Long Suffering Husband, much less a legitimate recording artist in his own right. Surely he had something to offer, too? You wouldn’t have known it had your only barometer of his pop wares had been Newlyweds.
The real reason was that Universal didn’t want to time his album release to coincide with Newlyweds mania, which is a decision he and they will have to live—or die—by. The reason is most probably this: Jessica’s In This Skin debuted brightly at #10 but plummeted fairly quickly and comprehensively, which may have been assisted by her portrayal as a total dork on the show. Nick, on the other hand, by being portrayed—perhaps less hilariously, but more sympathetically—as the patient, calm partner, could have a more sympathetic response to his album. This assumes, of course, that the listening public is smart enough to go along with a record rep’s idea of a good move—when really, isn’t Jessica the more enticing personality?
The good news—for Nick as much as for the listener—is that SoulO is a largely polished and impressive affair. Wisely, he’s not followed the lead of the other recent boy-band members’ solo affairs (Justin Timberlake and J.C. Chasez) in creating an album that is perhaps more inventive or sophisticated than a) his long-time fans are used to or b) he himself can live up to. The two leading tracks are among the strongest on offer. “Shut Up”, the first of three co-writes with The Matrix (who’ve worked with Avril Lavigne and Liz Phair, among others), is a classy rock/R&B; hybrid that works surprisingly well (or better than it would expect from seeing it written down). Instead of joining the hip-pop hybrid bandwagon, Lachey gritties up a Thriller-era MJ dance number with harsh Earth Wind & Fire brass and a grinding guitar refrain. It’s a confident opening salvo; the similarly terrific “It’s Alright” later takes a similar tack. “Let Go” (though its intro is uncannily similar to Lavigne’s “Complicated”) is a sweet childhood tale, again using the rock-tinged R&B; vibe to strong effect. Newlyweds fans will recognize “This I Swear” (the song bookends the ad breaks); while it is decidedly Love Songs And Dedications, it remains moving in a white bread kind of way. The killer is the Manilow/Chicago-esque piano ballad “Edge Of Eternity” (reportedly written by Nick as a wedding present to Jessica), which is a solid gold commercial radio balltearer—dig those strings, man! Key-change!! Powerful! In the end, though the concept of ‘killer’ is a moot point, there’s little to no ‘filler’ on SoulO; even the softer R&B; tracks are slicked with plenty of personality and emotion.
98° were always a classy affair, less concerned with trends or critic-pleasing than N*Sync or The Backstreet Boys seemed to be in the twilight years of their careers (see: “Dirty Pop”). Despite being promoted and derided (in equal measure) as a “boy band”, they were always more of a “vocal group” than anything, rippling abs notwithstanding. You would imagine that die-hard 98° fans would turn out in droves to greet SoulO with open wallets, but only time will tell. It’s possible that Nick’s not having been painted a particularly colourful Newlyweds personality will dent record-buyers’ enthusiasm, as they assume that Jessica Simpson’s (much duller) In This Skin will be as entertaining as her silly TV persona. The quality and talent of SoulO will no doubt stand the test of time, but in a society—and media—that creates meaningless “chart battles” between a husband and wife, you can be certain that the units shifted (or, not shifted) will outshine the album itself. Pity the poor Long Suffering Husband.