So, you want to flex a musical muscle or two? Well, forget the stairs and hop aboard the eleva-tour of R&B. No doubt, a few albums out this year, like Justin Timberlake‘s The 20/20 Experience, have got you thinking that a white boy may just have a little soul in him. As much as you may love Timberlake’s efforts, the latest LP from Mayer Hawthorne steamrolled all over it. Where Does This Door Go? (out July 16) is the title and quite frankly, where doesn’t it go? His fourth album, and second for Universal Republic, is inspired and well-crafted, taking on the rich and varied rhythms that made the careers of superstar acts in the Motown era and beyond. He may have been a small blip on the radar for me before, but the Door is wide open for this guy to be all over my summer playlist.
At 52 minutes and 15 tracks, two of which are interludes, it’s not a quick listen but it does suck you in almost immediately. Hawthorne’s influences are all over the place on this cohesive album, sounding a bit like a Daryl Hall meets Boz Scaggs type with a quirky and fiery personality that makes him his own. Although the shift in sound from his last effort has alienated some of his core fans, it’s also been embraced by many others, including myself. Radio unfortunately hasn’t been responsive to it, but that may change once the critical enthusiasm for it comes in, and it will. So, let’s Go on, shall we?
After a brief interlude to get us in the mood, Hawthorne shines on the second track, “Back Seat Lover”, which perfectly blends the sounds of Smokey Robinson and Earth, Wind and Fire into one four-minute song. It’s a dirty groove with a dirty lyric to boot: “If I gotta be your cheap back seat lover/Man, well, let’s get it on.” Ooh, he’s hot alright. By track three, Hawthorne is taking on John Oates with the suspenseful yet satisfying “The Innocent”, comparable to “Maneater” by Hall & Oates (as NPR has pointed out) or perhaps Toto‘s darker catalogue. Extra points go to the warped vinyl sound at the end of the track; it probably makes a lot more sense if you’re playing an actual record of it, but I still think it’s pretty cool.
He’s certainly at his best when he’s chilling out and what’s better than a chilled drink with his “Wine Glass Woman”, who has “the fire in your eyes/But your victory will be your own demise”. With a soaring guitar line and a biting choice of words, track six is also a winner, which ends on an inquisitive note: “Can we just slow it down and make it funky? Like we always wanted it to be.” So, it was. The following track and first single, “Her Favorite Song”, is already a favorite of mine, which definitely resembles the smooth sound of Rufus and Chaka Khan, particularly on songs of theirs like “Tell Me Something Good”. Accompanied by British singer Jessie Ware on background vocals, it’s perfection. “Reach Out Richard” is also fantastic in this respect, but it’s more pop-driven than “Woman” and “Song”. Part of me wants to place it as post-disco early 80’s song (anybody else hear a bit of “Murphy’s Law” by Cheri?), but I’m not sure if that’s the inspiration behind it. Either way, it’s a repeat track, for sure.
He may be a soulful man, but that doesn’t that mean that every track is rooted in one particular area. Some of my other picks include “Robot Love”, which claps its way to the electronic funk of Prince, “The Stars Are Ours”, which treads on the rockier edge of Stevie Wonder‘s “Higher Ground” and closer “All Better”, rooted in the folksy pop of Elton John‘s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It’s certainly the musical workout, but Hawthorne takes all of it on, and for the most part, does it effortlessly and without missing a beat. He’s that experienced even at his young age.
With any album, there’s bound to be a few tweaks that could’ve made it flawless. For me, the second half of the album drags a little in places, but there’s nothing particularly skip-worthy as a whole. Some of the songs are just so thick, you need a break, you know? I also find that his falsetto on maybe one or two tracks is grating, but that’s really picky of me. I think you’ll probably agree, however, that his middle range is his strength. Lastly, you could also argue that there’s perhaps one or two songs too much of Pharrell Williams involvement on this album, but that’s largely given that there’s so much of him out there right now, from producing to singing to writing. Does he bring it down? As a whole, no. Individually, I don’t need to go into depth about minute details. I can’t complain about much else; he’s gotta be doing something right.
The ride isn’t over ’til it’s over, but you may not want to get off after what you’ve experienced. Mayer Hawthorne‘s Where Does This Door Go?: it swings both ways, but don’t shut this guy out.