A Balladeer's Subtle Lyricism Drowns in Rock Technology
New York Times
April 5, 2004
By Stephen Holden
What has happened to people's ears? To attend the second of three performances by Josh Groban, the 22-year-old baritone phenomenon, at Radio City Music Hall on Friday evening was to encounter an exceptional voice stripped of much of its personality by the relentless overkill of rock amplification. No one seemed to care that the subtlety and feeling conveyed on his lush, formal albums were crushed. To the ears of the mass audience nowadays, it seems, louder is better and dehumanization synonymous with intimacy.

Mr. Groban, as seen on "Ally McBeal," "Great Performances" and "Oprah," is a romantic balladeer who means it. A younger, Los Angeles-born answer to the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, he conveys the poignancy of a lonely innocent blessed with talent but isolated by it, dreaming out loud.

With its speeded-up vibrato, similar to Celine Dion's, his voice, which soars well into a tenor range, is distinctive for its purity and tenderness. Unlike most of his fellow balladeers, he is not a decorative or emotional ham and eschews fancy embellishments and sobbing histrionics in favor of unornamented, long-lined phrases.

But on Friday his discretion was undermined by the booming rock acoustics, and his voice was hoisted on the steroid-enhanced shoulders of an orchestra (with a rock band) that turned most of the numbers into grandiose Herculean labors. Over melodramatic whooshes and roars, the voice soared, but the victories felt more like Olympic feats than interpretations of songs. Under the thick gloss of amplified orchestration inflected with Spanish-flavored guitars and solo violin, Mr. Groban's heavily miked voice lost its dynamic shading and assumed a sharp, metallic edge.

Most of the songs were taken from "Closer" (Reprise), the second of Mr. Groban's two albums, which together have sold nine million copies. Many are imitation, post-verismo arias (in Italian) steeped in longing. Some songs were not large enough for the weight they had to carry in concert. Others, like Lucio Dalla's "Caruso," and "Per Te" (with lyrics by Marco Mariangeli and music by Walter Afanasieff and Mr. Groban) held their own. Mr. Groban also performed several originals (in English) that follow the Mediterranean style he has carried to new commercial heights.

The extremes of crassness and elegance that characterize this revitalized semi-classical genre were embodied by the anthem "You Raise Me Up," which brought a gospel choir to the stage.

The song, by Brendan Graham and Rolf Lovland, borrows shamelessly from "Danny Boy" and "The Wind Beneath My Wings," right down to its image of one person supporting another. (Or as the flowery chorus goes, "You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains.")

On paper the song may be a hollow imitation of something else. But Mr. Groban, sincere as ever, infused it with all the devotion the acoustics would permit and forced it to fly.