Hanson lean into their dad vibes on a symphony-backed album that reworks their old classics (yes, even “MMMBop”).
Hanson released Middle of Nowhere, their first record, in 1997 – twenty-two years ago. Their notoriously sugary single “MMMBop” wormed its way into the world’s ears and became a calling card of the late 90s, preserving the Hanson brothers in amber as three blond, pubescent boybanders. But, somehow, they’re still around, and they just released a new album. String Theory came out November 9thon 3CG Records, an independent label founded by the band in 2003. Today, the Hanson brothers are in their late 30s and are each married with several kids. Now, they have brown hair.
Hanson has always been inspired by the soul, funk, and classic crooners they listened to growing up. Middle of Nowhere combined Jackson Five-esque vocals and cutesy lyrics, exploding into poppy, youthful exuberance. Their sound matured on subsequent albums – literally, as younger brothers Taylor and Zac’s voices dropped – and they began to write jazzy power-pop songs about more adult relationships. On 2013’s Anthem, their most recent release before String Theory, they stayed true to form with rollicking, if generic, guitar riffs and white-boy-soul tunes (one track is even titled “I’ve Got Soul”). The trio’s voices have held up well over the years, and even if the songs sometimes sound like watered-down Midwest versions of their influences, Anthem has a few wholly enjoyable bops. I’m partial to “Juliet” and “Tragic Symphony.”
You either die a boy band, or you live long enough to see yourself become a dad band. Hanson have fully embraced their literal and figurative dadness on String Theory. After graduating from teenybopper earworms to power pop, they have now graduated once again and mellowed out to slower, symphonic compositions. Backed by orchestral arrangements performed by the Prague Symphony, the album reworks old classics from their past seven albums (yes, including “MMMBop”) alongside new songs. It’s a double album, almost ninety minutes long, and its uncharacteristic orchestration feels like the kind of left turn that a twenty-five-year-old band might take after a career that’s often been defined by one song.
The old songs reborn on String Theory sound mostly like the originals, just with a wave of dramatic strings swelling suddenly in the background. Like, if Hanson soundtracked a movie. I do enjoy hearing “MMMBop” performed with the assistance of an orchestra, and I admire the band’s decision to acknowledge their biggest hit – they sing it with a sense of self-awareness, but mostly with genuine, earnest commitment. Perhaps reflecting the brothers’ age and the vast number of children between them, the new tracks drip with inspirational sap. “Joyful Noise” combines a piano intro that reminds me of a Broadway showtune with trite lyrics like “Dance all night/Find your courage.” Soaring ballad “Dream It Do It” sounds like a father-to-daughter graduation card: “If you can dream it/You can do it/You’ve got to hold on tight, don’t want to lose it.”
The cheese is as plentiful as the violin, but somehow the brothers’ sincerity overpowers all the thin clichés. Throughout Hanson’s career, they’ve seemed so much less constructed than the typical boy band. They’re strongly religious, with some of that Oklahoma homegrown purity. As plenty of 90s babies will tell you, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac were certified heartthrobs, but their image never centered on sex appeal or calculated marketing to teen girls. Family is obviously a huge part of their creative and personal lives. This is all to say that the slightly overdone instrumentation and corny lyrics don’t feel inauthentic. They really believe in the motivational, earnest messages that they sing, and they enjoy making music.
At the end of the day, Hanson knows how to write a great pop song. They’ve had a long, successful career and still attract crowds of passionate fans. String Theory feels like they’re looking back over the years and breathing a contented sigh.