Mayer Hawthorne is on the verge of something big. The endorsements are there—from JC Penny commercials to the pages of GQ and even the menu of Umami Burger. Any worries that his ’60s soul music wouldn’t translate is long out the window. In fact, the ad placements and radio time seem to say, America wants more love making rhythms, more falsetto—more Mayer.
But for all his honeyed words, soulful basslines and choice Snoop Dogg covers, Hawthorne has never let on to be more than what he is: not an outright ladykiller, but a nerdish Michigander with a Smokey Robinson complex. As such, his music videos can be wincingly strange, his tweets are more often about love of a great burger than they are a woman and, though his pipes betray it, he’s clearly a bespectacled white guy.
Catering to both of these realities, “Where Does This Door Go” is Hawthorne’s most pop-sensible album as well as his most idiosyncratic. Soul is largely set aside; the posters of the Gap Band and the Emotions have been torn down in favor of one giant Steely Dan mural. Though you won’t find any really batshit lyrics or confounding time signatures here, hints of their vocal melodies and strange lyrical detours are all over the album.
For example, instead of the open-ended love ballads of his last two albums, there are semi-detailed narratives on “WDTDG,” and a couple of proper-noun characters to speak of. True to Steely Dan fashion, “Allie Jones,” a reggae ballad about a desperate woman living for her daughter, is a pleasant enough listen until you pay attention to the lyrics. Though it’s similarly plaintive, “Reach Out Richard” fares better. The sentiment—a son’s assurance “the kid’s all right” to his father in a trouble spot—is effective and relatable for many, even if the rhythm is grafted straight from “Aja”‘s “Peg.”
A lot of the album’s fun is had in the album’s straight pop tracks. Album opener “Back Seat Lover” is about as vintage Hawthorne as it gets on “WDTDG,” with all the tongue-in-cheek of the hook-up songs he banged out in his first two albums. Despite its existential conceit, “The Only One” sounds like it belongs in a Sketchers ad in the best way possible—something to do with its faux hip-hop beat, no doubt. Regardless of how you feel about that, it’s the album’s most instantly likable track.
“Crime” and “The Stars Are Ours” are sorry-for-partying tracks in the vein of “Henny and Gingerale” but less simplistic and less memorable. Bottom line, it’s just easier—and more fun—to chant “It never fails / Henny and Gingerale” than “The stars are ours tonight / we’ll worry about tomorrow when the sun starts shining bright.” “Crime” is supposedly Hawthorne’s “Fuck The Police,” but with a stoned shrug of the shoulders instead of NWA’s explosive indignation. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the track is disappointing—standard booze-n-pot rap that doesn’t sit right after hearing him do “Swimming Pools (Drank)” with conviction. Rick Ross would’ve been perfect.
Near the end of the album, there’s a funky little number called “Robot Love” that bears mention. It’s hokey, goofy and in some ways, more Hawthorne than any soul song. Like doing the electric slide at a wedding, you can forget its ridiculousness for the sake of fun. That’s indicative of a good chunk of Hawthorne’s M.O. all over—check your cool at the door and dance, please.
Like its title track suggests, “Where Does This Door Go” has Hawthorne taking chances and exploring his realms of interest outside of the soul music that got him on today’s pages, screens and radio stations. He’s often said he had no intention of becoming a soul singer when he coined the name Mayer Hawthorne—it’s just the first sound Stone’s Throw labelhead Peanut Butter Wolf had heard him play. On “WDTDG,” his other doors of influence are wide open. Though he stumbles through some, the album proves that his quality doesn’t come from the genre he plays in, but the playfulness he brings to them.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s indie and bluegrass blogger. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.