When I first met Mayer Hawthorne, it was in the coffee shop around the corner. OK, so I wasn’t meeting the neo-soul artist in the flesh, but it was a striking encounter nevertheless. A song from Hawthorne’s debut album, 2009’s A Strange Arrangement, was playing, and I had to ask the tattooed and tongue-pierced barista a question I never usually ask people of their music choices while ordering java in coffee shops, Who is this?
“Mayer Hawthorne,” came the reply.
“OK, so what city is he the mayor of?” I asked in return.
“No, May-er. E-R,” said the barista.
Anyhow, I was so taken with the song, I went out and bought Hawthorne’s (aka Andrew Mayer Cohen’s) sophomore release, 2011’s question-mark free, How Do You Do. And, of course, I was quite smitten with what I heard: homages to the great Motown artists of yesteryear, and I grooved to the Barry White-isms to be had. Which makes Hawthorne’s latest platter a bit of a change in direction. While How Do You Do was, to some degree, about wanting to get laid in the best way possible, the similarly punctuation free Where Does This Door Go is more about bad sex, or at least humiliating sex. It starts with the opening 15-second skit, “Problematization”, which features the sounds of a couple making out, interruptted by the sound of a zipper being undone, before a female voice asks, “Wait, you’re not going to tell anybody about this, right?” followed by a baffled male voice offering, “Huh?” Elsewhere, another skit has a guy wondering about how good the girls on the street look, before police sirens cuts in and drinking and driving bust goes down. And the intro to “Robot Love” features two people making love in that Stephen Hawking kind of robotic voice, which is probably meant to be funny.
So, yeah, a bit of a departure here, and that’s not the only thing that’s different. Where Does This Door Go is the first Hawthorne album that he didn’t produce himself, relying on such superstar producers as the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams (fresh off his victory lap with Daft Punk, if not Kendrick Lamar – more on that later), John Hill, Jack Splash, Greg Wells, Warren “Oak” Felder and others. And while Hawthorne’s past sound was rooted in neo-soul, Where Does This Door Go is much more in a late ‘70s jazz-rock fusion vein, sounding at times like a cross between The Royal Scam and Aja-era Steely Dan and Minute By Minute-era Doobie Brothers. Heck, on “Wine Glass Woman”, Hawthorne comes off as sounding like a dead ringer for Donald Fagen.
While it’s hard to say if a change in direction will bolster Hawthorne’s album sales – How Do You Do did a fairly respectable 100,000 units or so moved – it’s still a joy to listen to for fans of a particular sound, and that of “blue-eyed soul”. “Back Seat Lover” is perhaps the best song that Michael McDonald never sang lead on, and it’s utterly infectious with its chorus of “nah nah nah nah’s”. It starts off the album on an exceptionally strong footing, and what follows is one amazing track after amazing track. “The Innocent” practically soars into the stratosphere with its ascending notes, and reminds me of, for some reason, Hall and Oates’ “Maneater”. “Allie Jones”, meanwhile, slithers in its reggae-ish sound in the mud in a down and dirty kind of way, making it a spiritual cousin to “Haitian Divorce”. “Reach Out Richard” is another song that carries that Steely Dan sound, and it’s simply bewildering to hear. And “The Stars Are Ours”, with its “hey-ho” call and response, yields infinite rewards for the earworm lodged in your skull.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Hawthorne’s love of hip-hop. While How Do You Do employed the talents of Snoop Dogg (or whatever he’s calling himself these days), Where Does This Door Go features rapper du jour Kendrick Lamar on the slow-burning, sitar-led “Crime”. A gripping track, the song sounds reminiscent of Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle”, just with more of a soul vibe to it. It’s, in a word, great. Meanwhile, “The Only One” features some awesome record scratching, another nod to Hawthorne’s roots in hip-hop. But the album does go elsewhere in sonics other than the hip-hop world and jazz-rock skronkery. Final track “All Better”, which may be pointing to Hawthorne’s future direction and offers a hopeful summation of love not really heard elsewhere on the record, is a Mellotron drenched ballad that seems oddly reminiscent of Styx, or any ‘70s-era AM Gold act. It’s perhaps the weakest track of the bunch, but it’s still got a vibe that resonates. It’s a little like calling “I Got the News” the weakest track on Aja: a still-classic song on a classic album.
With Where Does This Door Go, Hawthorne offers a set that’s more cohesive and fulfilling than How Do You Do. Even with the thematic of sex being awkward and mean-spirited, the LP is a joy to listen to and fans of Steely Dan will find much to admire here. The album builds with track after track of awesomeness that offers a heralded look at a genre of music that often goes overlooked, unless, of course, you’re a regular reader of Mojo or Rolling Stone. Mayer Hawthorne might be asking Where Does This Door Go, despite the fact that it’s more of a command than a question, and the obvious answer is wherever he wants to lead us down. Whether the sex vibes are good or bad, Hawthorne has the “it” sound that’s a favourite of coffee shop baristas everywhere. Where Does This Door Go improves over his last effort, which was already pretty good to begin with, and may go down as one of the year’s most exceptional releases. Where Does This Door Go is as refreshing as a tropical breeze, if not a good cup of joe at your favorite hangout.