Leave it to Josh Groban to craft an album with Rick Rubin that completely defies the “stripped down” reputation Rubin has built for himself over all those albums with Johnny Cash.
Full disclosure — I’m an unabashed Groban fan, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I even sang “You Raise Me Up” at my own wedding, for what that’s worth. But the new material on Illuminations pushes Groban in a smart direction. Clearly he’s not afraid to embrace his role in the music world as a lover of bombast, a singer of big songs for listeners who crave symphonic pop that isn’t ashamed to be as much pop as symphonic. Classical? Hardly. Glorious? If you keep an open mind, certainly.
“Hidden Away” is destined to become Groban’s biggest crowd-pleasing hit since “You Raise Me Up,” because he’s able to embrace a broad theme — don’t hide your talents and beauty beneath a bushel and all that — without drowning in saccharine treacle. Rubin’s production steps deftly to the side and lets Groban’s voice do the work, and the hook is right there to latch onto. It’s going to stick in your head and dare you not to try and sing along, matching Groban note for note.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether the song has a hidden message of religious or sexual tolerance. Whether Groban is gay is hardly relevant, but if the song is picked up by someone who is, and it gives him or her some sense of acceptance, I say let them take up the song as a shield. It could work in much the same way as Five For Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” which many took to be a direct reference to September 11th, despite the album it was on having been released six months prior. Did that take away from the effect the song had on all of us after September 11th?
In the end we take from a song what we put into it. And “Hidden Away” is a fine contribution to Groban’s musical legacy, one which I suspect will have a long shelf-life. And if you haven’t given Illuminations a listen yet, what are you waiting for?