The Jonas Brothers and their handlers are savvy enough to recognize that no type of fame is more ephemeral than that of teen idols, so they attempt to cash in with Lines, Vines and Trying Times, the trio’s fourth album in as many years. Unfortunately, they don’t seem smart enough to realize that nothing kills any given teen-pop cycle faster than attempts at “maturity,” especially when those attempts are of the awkward, PG-13 variety that characterizes much of Lines. It may play well to kids who are still cutting their teeth on very special episodes of Degrassi but who aren’t quite prepared for the heady topicality and intrigue of Gossip Girl, but it’s not going to impress anyone else.
Well, actually, that’s not entirely true: People who live for drama that plays out on Twitter feeds and Facebook walls may enjoy the album’s breakup subtext, since frontman Joe gets in several digs at his ex, Taylor Swift. “Before the Storm,” an overwrought duet with Miley Cyrus, and “What Did I Do to Your Heart,” which features fiddles and harmonicas heavily in its arrangement, both pointedly co-opt Swift’s brand of why-in-the-hell-does-anyone-even-bother-to-call-it-country music, while “Much Better” is even less subtle, with Joe boasting of a new romance that’s superior to someone with a tear-spattered guitar. Compared to the Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears coupling of the last major teen-pop cycle (and, also, thanks to the JoBros’s purity rings), the whole chaste affair seems downright quaint, but that junior varsity tabloid subtext is truly the only thing that makes Lines even halfway interesting.
That’s primarily because, whatever limitations she may have as an artist and performer (and it’s worth mentioning that Joe’s labored vocals on most of this album make him sound constipated, so it’s really a tossup as to whether he or Swift is the worst singer in contemporary pop), Swift can at least write a full album’s worth of memorable hooks. As was the case on last year’s inert A Little Bit Longer, too many of the tracks here feel labored: Youngest brother Nick, taking solo writing credit, butchers the natural meter of the language on opener “World War III,” to say nothing of the song’s ill-timed parallel between a breakup and a major geopolitical crisis, while “Keep It Real” buries its ostensible hook beneath a layer of in-the-red power chords. Lead single “Paranoid” fares no better, riding along a lifeless rhythm track that wants for the relative inspiration and risk of Maroon 5, and “Hey Baby” and “Fly with Me” sound like outtakes from recent parody of the band on South Park.
There is a bit of humor to be found on Lines: “Poison Ivy” posits that love is just a contagious rash, thus ensuring that this is the second straight Jonas Brothers album to include a song that unintentionally scans as being about VD. But it’s the collaboration with rapper Common on “Don’t Charge Me for the Crime,” on which the brothers spin a hilarious, inept tale of armed robbery, that strikes comedy gold. Not that Joe’s viral video of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” or the band’s stilted Saturday Night Live sketch left any doubts, but “Crime” proves that the Jonas Brothers lack the self-awareness to be in on the joke.
That would be less of a problem if they had the awareness of songcraft to compensate. But for a handful of isolated moments (Nick’s legitimately pretty-good ballad “Black Keys” and the Hanson-esque hook and harmonies on “What Did I Do to Your Heart”), Lines suggests that the Jonas Brothers simply don’t have—or, more charitably, haven’t yet developed—the chops to make it once the current teen-pop bubble bursts. Flooding the market with new material may work for them in the short term, but their target demographic won’t be so indiscriminating forever.