Harry Connick Jr., Every Man Should Know (Columbia)

Harry Connick Jr, Every Man Should Know, album cover

Harry Connick Jr. promises that his latest is a “no rules, no limits” album—that quote’s in his liner notes, and it’s the hub of the ad campaign as well. This is meant to be his personal album, the one where he pushes himself into risky paths of creativity. But if you think that means he’s going to do a Pat Metheny and challenge his audience by going noisy and free-form, guess again. It’s something of a departure, being a sophisticated singer-songwriter album instead of a jazz, funk or New Orleans-themed set. But it seems that the already familiar image of Connick—an old-fashioned romantic and a basically nice guy—is close to the real thing as we’re going to get.
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It’s tempting to peg this as his Billy Joel album—or at least, an album for listeners left homeless when Joel and Elton John stopped doing this sort of thing. There are in fact plenty of rules and limits here, and they’re more about emotional tone than musical style. The opening title track has a message that’s hard to argue with—that true love takes effort, but it’s worth it—and the same basic niceness turns up when he surveys the less fortunate on “Come See About Me,” or pledges undying love on a half-dozen other tracks. “Time to Go” also brings Billy Joel to mind, as it covers similar lyrical ground to Joel’s “The Entertainer,” about a musician used up by the industry. But true to form, Connick makes it a respectful story of a character, instead of a first-person gripe.

Connick keeps the music as comfortable as the lyrics, which means that the tracks featuring an A-list of jazz players (among them Bill Summers, Mark Mullins and Wynton and Branford Marsalis) blend smoothly with the ones featuring Nashville session men. Nobody gets too much stepping-out space, though it’s refreshing to hear a mainstream pop album where the strings are all real and the voice is non-autotuned. Those who prefer Connick’s edgier moments (like last spring’s carnival album Smokey Mary, which shares this disc’s best track) won’t find many here, but his mainstream fans should love this just the way it is.