'String Theory' Illuminates Hanson's Remarkable Songcraft
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple playlists at the bottom of the page.
There must be a dozen ways to process the idea of a double-length, career-spanning album in which the long-running pop band Hanson performs while backed by an orchestra. You could study the new symphonic arrangements, courtesy of Oscar winner David Campbell (a.k.a. Beck's dad), and pick apart how they compare to the originals. You could examine the trend of veteran bands performing with orchestras — even Hanson's pal "Weird Al" Yankovic is doing it — as a way of refreshing their catalogs. You could question the appeal of the idea to anyone outside a preexisting pool of diehards.
But in the case of String Theory, it's perhaps best to view the concept as a means of highlighting Hanson's remarkable songcraft. Hanson has been a band for more than 25 years, and has had a serious commercial legacy to live up to ever since Middle of Nowhere and the inescapable "MMMBop" sold millions back in 1997. When that record came out, brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson were 16, 14 and 11, respectively — and, as a result, were widely viewed outside their fan base as a prefab boy band. But even then, they were accomplished players and songwriters, capable of airtight arrangements and impeccable sibling harmonies. Now that they're in their 30s (and still writing new records, selling out theaters and even brewing their own line of beer), they're better positioned to demonstrate what's long been obvious: These guys write hooks sturdy enough to hold up any kind of arrangement you can name.
On String Theory, that can simply mean making a pop song sound statelier — or just slower — by letting the strings swoop in and out. But at their best, Campbell's new arrangements lend force as well as beauty. In a reworking of the band's terrific 2017 single "I Was Born," a rich surge of strings and percussion gives way to the full weight of the orchestra in the chorus, transforming a rousing song into something approaching a cataclysm.
Over the course of its 23 songs (several of which are new and/or previously unreleased), String Theory unfolds kind of like a Hanson live show: It ebbs and flows through reworked hits, fan favorites and other optimistic odes to tenacity and self-reliance; tosses off "MMMBop" near the beginning, as if to check a box and cast it aside; and escalates the grandiosity in what feel like long-anticipated encores. Even in a studio, backed by an orchestra, these guys know how to work a room.