Ryan Tedder can write a damn good pop song. There’s little to no evidence against this: Tedder’s songwriting credits include international smash hits by Adele (Rumour Has It), Leona Lewis (Bleeding Love), Jordin Sparks (Battlefield), Gavin DeGraw (Not Over You), and Queen Beyoncé herself (the colossal and brilliant ballad Halo).
Tedder helped pen all of these songs, however, only after delivering his own first earworm hit: Apologize, a falsetto-laden, gut-wrenching pop ballad that the RIAA certified platinum three times in the United States. But this was not a Ryan Tedder solo project; rather, this was the lead single from Dreaming Out Loud, the new album from his alternative rock band OneRepublic.
In those early days, Tedder seemed to happily be writing for his band. While Tedder wrote Apologize by himself, most of the songs list writing credits by several (if not all) of the group’s instrumentalist members – and although Tedder’s vocals were the clear focus of the group’s gratifyingly innocuous rock songs, the group made sure to ramp up the guitars often enough to keep themselves relevant.
But time changes all things. In the three long, shape-shifting years since OneRepublic’s second album Waking Up, Tedder’s songwriting has evolved quickly to keep up with the artists he writes for. So indeed, on the band’s new, third album Native, Tedder’s songwriting is often incredibly in touch with the radio public – but very rarely in touch with his own band.
At its best, Native finds Tedder singing like the missing link between Chris Martin and Adele. Throughout, his voice soars through a special kind of stratosphere lit by millions of iPhone screens – songs like I Can’t Stop and Preacher channel the best of Coldplay’s colorful pop stadium-shakers. At the same time, Tedder’s voice is heavily married to R&B singing, belting and riffing its way through opening track Counting Stars (the chorus of which is something of a male chest-voice miracle) and the gospel-tinged Something I Need.
This kind of genre-crossing is also largely true of the instrumentation and production on the record: with Native, OneRepublic blend the tribal “ahs” and chorus chants of Fun. and Coldplay with the cavernous live drumming on Adele’s 21 and much of Florence And The Machine‘s output. In fact, OneRepublic capitalize on Tedder’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of everything that has ever made a pop song catchy: Something I Need riffs off of The Killers’ church-choir rocker All These Things That I’ve Done, Preacher’s verse mimics the catchy vocals of Coldplay’s recent Hurts Like Heaven, and Light It Up borrows the distorted drama of recent Muse.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the best plan for OneRepublic which, as a rather traditional alternative rock band, is somewhat limited by the instruments its members play. If I Lose Myself, which might otherwise immediately catapult into Top 40 territory, cannot quite commit to its electronic tendencies, and sounds awkwardly in between an indie-pop jive and a glossy dance hit. Similarly, What You Wanted calls for some epic, wall-of-sound production that simply as a band, OneRepublic cannot provide.
Additionally, while Tedder can on occasion craft lyrics that strike the perfect balance between simplicity and grandiosity, he flounders a bit too often on Native. The chorus to Something I Need ends with “If we only die once, I wanna die with you,” which is either intentional and therefore too creepy for comfort, or just a mistaken attempt at ‘till death do us part’.
Often enough though, Native does truly shine: Counting Stars and I Can’t Stop are gloriously catchy, sprawling successes. Again, there’s no question the man can write – it’s just a real shame that Tedder seems to have forgotten how to write for his band. And this, ultimately, is what keeps Native from both from being a great OneRepublic album, and from its true potential as a great album by Ryan Tedder.