TOBIAS JESSO JR. Hard-luck Hollywood tales.
Photo by James Marshall

FOR TOBIAS JESSO JR., failing couldn't have worked out much better.

After moving to Hollywood to pursue songwriting, Jesso's career was going nowhere. He and his girlfriend split. Then, while riding his bike, he got hit by a car. The hood ornament sliced through his hand. The next day he learned his mom had cancer. That was it. He moved back in with his parents in Canada.

"When I went back to Vancouver and thought there was no opportunity for me, my insecurities fell away," Jesso told the New York Times last month. "I stopped thinking about the successes of my songwriting and started thinking about my enjoyment of it."

With newfound perspective, he wrote smooth, soft, classic pop songs with just his voice and piano, and recorded them on warbling tape. These new songs flowered from a place free of fear, from a heart that'd been humbled, but still had hope.

Over sturdy structures of naturally flowing chords, Jesso's sentiments are plaintive and timeless, expressing love and loss. The songs employ unadorned, almost clichéd language, and are a little reminiscent of John Lennon, who was able to synthesize sparkle from simple clarity. Unlike Jesso's previous compositions, these post-Hollywood demos started catching on.

Jesso emailed the tracks to Chet "J.R." White, producer of the band Girls. White responded quickly: Come to the studio in San Francisco. White produced most of the tracks on Goon. The others were shepherded by even heavier hitters, Patrick Carney (of the Black Keys) and Ariel Rechtshaid (producer of Haim).

Despite the hot producers, Goon retains much of the spirit of those original demos. It is all Jesso, and it's all about breakups, either with a girlfriend or with a place. It's elevated by Jesso's well-trained musical modality—a tasteful extra beat here, a slash-chord there—and tempos that hang as aching underlining.

Perhaps as a remnant of his attempts at writing songs for other singers, Jesso's words are all big-picture, mostly vague ideas that could be sung by anyone. While his tone fits, the lack of detail could affect the way Goon ages. It is far from multifaceted.

Jesso, meanwhile, has more imminent concerns. He's played only a handful of shows as a frontman and is about to begin touring vigorously. After a debut on The Tonight Show—reportedly his first performance with a band—and a few days of appearances as SXSW, Jesso declined to be interviewed. According to his publicist, Jesso has "been absolutely overwhelmed in the past couple of months and needs a break."

It's also possible Jesso has decided he's getting enough press, especially now that the tabloids have rumored he's been canoodling with Taylor Swift. Either way, the next chapter ought to be interesting. Failure gave Jesso a voice. What'll he make of success?