Mayer Hawthorne’s slick, suave seductions have been a little-known secret for some time now; the Michigan-native and present-Californian has had the ability to traverse through time and bring old-school R&B grooves to life ever since his refreshing debut, A Strange Arrangement, the introductory foray into Hawthorne’s time tunnel back to the heyday of R&B and soul. It was an album whose retro stylings were neither ostentatiously over-pronounced, but rather sleek, yet subtly confident. 2011’s How Do You Do took a more understated route, toning down the dynamics yet still maintaining the stylish bravado and donning the mantle of lovestruck troubadour with various songs of infatuation and puerile flirtatious exploits.
Hawthorne’s latest release, Where Does This Door Go, complete – or rather incomplete – without its question mark, maintains the nostalgic aesthetic Hawthorne has been cultivating and excelling at. While not as subdued as its predecessor, Hawthorne’s third studio album no longer rings of the needy, smitten whisperer of sweet nothings but is an altogether more solid effort pushing Hawthorne’s sound further with bolder production, stylistic experimentation and a pinch of charisma.
“Back Seat Lover” is the album’s scorcher of an opener, a simple track uncluttered with superfluous trappings. The keys and synths are toned down, the instrumentation is kept light, but even in spite of this “Back Seat Lover” serves up a good helping of boogie music, easy on the ears and still a lively introduction into an album of low-key energy and smooth, upscale jams. But it’s not all R&B-pop from start to finish. “The Only One” and its hip-hop flair crumple Hawthorne’s silky styling with hard-hitting beats. The same goes for “Allie Jones” and its slumped, staggering rhythmic swirls. The Kendrick Lamar collab, “Crime”, opens with what might be a sitar strumming the album’s sultriest track – indeed a combination that doesn’t quite spring up when one thinks of seduction. Hawthorne’s higher register, used throughout, is convincing enough to be mistaken for a mystery collaborator on the album already heavy with a handful of notable names such as Pharrell and producer Jack Splash, a Solange collaborator. Soul siren, Jessie Ware, features on the album’s first single “Her Favorite Song”, a track that threatens to be filler until Ware throws some spice over all the vanilla with some slow scat-singing on the chorus. The added dynamics are heightened when Hawthorne picks up the ball on the bridge – yet all the while the thumping, grooving bass begs to be heard.
It’s definitely a diverse album that sees Hawthorne exploring different avenues of funk, R&B and more. Some ventures feel more natural, such as the seemingly effortless “Corsican Rosé”, with its classically plain lyricism, excellent melody, and spectacularly brilliant middle eight to boot. Other ventures are unmistakably guided; “Wine Glass Woman” is a dead ringer for Pharrell where (no exaggeration) the very first second brings to mind the recent global smash “Get Lucky” – it’s by some French guys I hear. Pharrell Williams plays collaborator on both songs, though his hand is much more clearly evident on the former.
It’s sensationally slick and musically adept, varied without verging on being piecemeal, but Where Does Door Go suffers from a dryness of soul; one can only hide behind casual, boyish sexism for so long. And when the voice behind all the catcalls and attempts to get some action comes from a vessel capable of more, it can get frustrating. Take for example the ode to his father, “Reach Out Richard”, that comes across as earnest and heartfelt; not that his lovelorn woes or raised eyebrows in seduction are any less earnest, but its superficiality pales to what Hawthorne can do. His cover of “Don’t Turn The Lights On” by tourmates and fellow funk-maesters, Chromeo, slows the electrofunk track down into a soul-baring performance that peels back the synthesizers and adds a more human intensity to the pulsating dance number.
Perhaps it’s an album that was meant to consciously change up the formula he’s employed so far, and in that respect it has indeed worked, his feel-good frenzy upping the ante from what could’ve been a snoozier follow-up to a string of excellent, but somewhat stunted releases. But for all of Mayer Hawthorne’s velvet, what Where Does Door Go lacks is the rawness of emotion he has previously shown. It’s a little hard to meld the funky explorations and dynamic production while pairing it with a more exposed, vulnerable soul, and the album longs for Hawthorne to sing his heart out. Where Does Door Go is by no means an expression of feeling less valid, but such impressive melodic tenacity aches for an equally tenacious vehicle. It’s a fun album, that’s no question (take a look at the teaser video) and maybe it’s a little unfair to demand an album with a heftier emotional pang, but what’s clear is that Hawthorne is capable of it; whether he wants to throw his weight around is another question.
This year has seen some strong neo-soul releases: Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience and its follow-up, Jessie Ware’s Devotion, the “return” of Pharrell Williams, and Robin Thicke’s resurgence. These are all signs that funk and soul are still very much alive, whether it’s in Ware’s updated take on the genre or artists such as Jamiroquai or Hawthorne himself stabilizing the wormhole into the past. It’s a broad genre kept simultaneously fresh and alive yet undiluted by reinvention. From the poetic sincerity of Frank Ocean to the vocal prowess of John Legend, it’s not a bold assertion to say that Mayer Hawthorne is in undeniably good company. What’s more is that with all he’s produced so far, Hawthorne more than proves that’s he’s able to stand tall and confident amongst his contemporaries.