The first time I caught wind of Mayer Hawthorne was during the 2011 heyday of The Cool Kids, the now-defunct Midwestern hip-hop group whose influence sadly superseded their career. In promotion of their album debut, When Fish Ride Bicycles, they released the single “Swimsuits”, a delectable summer jam. Accompanying Chuck Inglish’s retro-fitted, shifting beat and his and Sir Michael Rocks’ laidback rhymes was Hawthorne’s breezy hook. It fit like a big bowl of raspberry sherbet on a hot day, and made me anticipate the respective album and Hawthorne’s future endeavors.
That future endeavor, How Do You Do, was not bad, but not necessarily my cup of tea. Hawthorne, the rosy-cheeked cherubim that he seemed to be, could not fully execute the 60s soul revivalist sound a la Adele, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Cee Lo Green etc. with a nice smile and his boyish charm. He constantly used a forced, rounded falsetto that meshed awkwardly with the textbook Motown production, and the lyrics were far from original. It didn’t suck, and I’m not taking the “white appropriation of a black art” route… it just didn’t do much in terms grasping any audience that didn’t take Centrum Silver or occasionally lose a Life Alert device.
Where Does This Door Go rights all wrongs immediately, and it navelgazes more than his previous efforts. “Back Seat Lover” sounds like a relaxed B-side to Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”. “The Only One” bumps with the same conviction that drives Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop”. The DNA of Stevie Wonder courses through “The Stars Are Ours”, and “Robot Love” is the closest the album gets to a full-on disco tune sung by Prince. But bringing these and other songs together is a crucial ingredient – Hawthorne’s pure personality.
This key component bleeds through despite the numerous collaborations with producers including Jack Splash, Warren Felder and Pharrell “Get Lucky” Williams that took place during WDTDG’s inception. “Having fun is really what it’s all about,” Hawthorne said in an interview with Billboard. Fun, or at least Hawthorne having fun, is what makes songs like “Back Seat Lover” and “Reach Out Richard” – one song about being a girl’s off-and-on boy toy, the other about his estranged father – compel listeners to sing along, tap their toe, simply respond in any physical way.
And, for once, it feels like Hawthorne’s life and experiences come through rather than love cliches picked from a rolodex and set to a rhythm. “My Favorite Song’s” chorus slowly melts like the euphoria one feels when lost in a great melody during a particularly dark day. The drunken, bluesy “Allie Jones” shuffles along like the titular character, as Hawthorne relates her tale with bleak remorse. “Wine Glass Woman”, a tightly arranged cantina pop tune, immediately conjures up a man in a gray blazer doing the two-step, waggling his fingers and singing at a pitch higher than the track. The album’s best song, “Crime”, is based on his infuriating run-ins with L.A. police on the beach, and sounds exactly like Hawthorne strumming on a Fender near a kindling fire, feet dug into the brown sand as he harmonizes sweetly and feels just tipsy enough to freestyle. His past experiences, and his matured, sensuous voice, operate in ways the molted bebop impersonator could only hope.
Moreover, the inclusion of outside producers has helped WDTDG’s production tremendously, both instrumentally and vocally, and places miles between his previous efforts. Hawthorne takes cues from those aforementioned artists, but the help from his friends gives him a much-needed push towards a cohesive and unique result. There are huge swathes of soul and R&B, obviously, but the ostensible use of hip hop and studio tricks go a long way (and fitting enough, since Hawthorne started out his musical career as a DJ.) The various angles collide on tracks like “The Only One” and “Corsican Rose”, but even straight-laced tracks like “Wine Glass Woman” benefit from Hawthorne’s newfound confidence in testing these colorful waters or a blissful vocal harmony. The only time the album falters is when the influences come through more than the song, especially in the case of “The Stars Are Ours”, It’s a pretty blatant Stevie Wonder clone, but then again, listeners could not beg for a greater influence for Hawthorne to mine for inspiration.
WDTDG makes me happy just listening to it. This is the purest evolution from one album to the next to occur this year; he may hold his influences close to the chest, but only due to a burning passion for that pristine sound. Thankfully, Hawthorne and his diligent group of co-collaborators managed to continue working in the annals of the past without alienating current audiences or treading on well-worn ground without feeling overly redundant.
4 out of 5
Purchase Where Does This Door Go on Amazon.