[7 April 2005]
Thank Goodness for Jack Johnson.
Everybody has stress in their life. Most of us probably have more than we need. We create stress. The pressure of wearing the right clothes, the pressure of a major presentation, the pressure of trying to convey sarcasm via an instant message, the pressure of keeping yourself from getting out of the car and strangling the idiot who just passed you (and dangerously cut you off in the process) for the sake of being in front of you when you got to the next red light. It all adds up to a massive amount of stress. Some of us would choose to disperse that stress in fits of aggression, screaming into a pillow or punching a heavy bag. Others would rather be cradled and cared for, told that everything’s going to be OK, reassured that the world is not as bad as it may sometimes seem.
For those in need of that last sort of therapy, Jack Johnson is here for you.
Jack Johnson has readily stated that he surfs first and plays music second; a startling admission, coming from a platinum recording artist. Even so, he was well-known on the professional surfing circuit long before he was a mellowed-out singer-songwriter, and he even won an award at the ESPN Film Festival (yes, there is such a thing) for his second surfing video, The September Sessions. Perhaps that’s a bit incongruous to the folks who grew to know Johnson via his songs, but it actually kind of makes sense when you hear his music. A common failing of modern recording artists is their propensity to take their own music far, far too seriously, often to their own detriment—an artist with no sense of humor can only be taken seriously for so long. Johnson, on the other hand, just writes songs, tosses the ones he likes onto a CD, and puts it out there. One gets the impression that he could care less whether anyone buys it or not.
“Love is the answer, at least for most of the questions in my heart,” sings Johnson, laying out the mission statement for In Between Dreams in its opener “Better Together”, much as he has on the previous two albums. Where Brushfire Fairytales was about laying low and having a good time and On and On was a bit more political (if still pretty quiet about it), In Between Dreams tends to focus on relationships. This could be a good or a bad thing as far as you’re concerned, but it has never really been the substance that matters with Jack Johnson—as the cliché goes, it’s all in the delivery.
Fortunately, the delivery has far more in common with Brushfire Fairytales than it does with On and On; rather than continue the “random thoughts put to music” feel of the latter album, songs actually have distinct verses and choruses as on the former, a formula that works much, much better for Johnson. First single “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” is Johnson’s most well-realized song since his first hit “Flake”, and it contains plenty of the subtle chord changes and even subtler wordplay that made that song great. “Banana Pancakes”, in turn, would be the equivalent of Brushfire Fairytales’ “Bubble Toes”, nonsense syllables and all, not to mention that it’s the most benign song about good lovin’ and sleeping in since that John Mayer tune a couple years back. Unfortunately, most of the songs on In Between Dreams also share the one most annoying trait of that first album, that being a tendency to push the drums up way too high in the mix—there’s not all that much to those drums, and they’re not really worth highlighting.
Of course, there’s a song about the sad state of the world today (“Good People”), a gentle meditation on mortality (“If I Could”), and an upbeat little ditty about wasted life (“Staple it Together”), and the album will still ultimately be labeled a “feel-good” album. Johnson just doesn’t really have it in him to make such topics sound as weighty as he could; terrible as things might be, he can always surf it off, you know.
To some, that will be his greatest failing, but that’s also exactly what appeals to his converts. It’s the reason Jack Johnson will never have his own personal Kid A, the reason nobody, for better or for worse, will expect anything different out of him.
On 3 April, God saw fit to dump one final God-sized bucket of snow on upstate New York before he let our yearly eight months of winter end. We’re not talking little flurries here, we’re talking eight solid inches of heavy, wet junk that closed parts of the New York State Thruway and made life miserable for an area that, not three days before, was basking in the glow of a 68-degree Fahrenheit day (that’s 20 Celsius, folks). Yet, there was my buddy Jack, his music like basking in the glow of a Hawaiian Sun. In Between Dreams was and is enough to convince me that warmer days are ahead, that the good stuff is inevitably worth the bad stuff. He may never change, he may never blow anyone away with his musical chops, and he may never, at this point, convert anyone who hasn’t already found his music; even so, Thank Goodness for Jack Johnson.