Mayer Hawthorne returns to form with a pop-soul record that echoes his first two albums.
Like it or not, Mayer Hawthorne is doing important work. Sure, he’s an easy target, what with those suits and thick-framed glasses and such. And yes, it’s not like he’s paving new ground with his music -- the whole white boy pop-soul thing has been done and re-done and subsequently mastered by a slew of artists more than old enough to be his father. But taking some time to think about his musical approach beyond a mere first glance, it’s hard not to appreciate what he’s bringing to the modern day mainstream.
Who else is going to do it? There’s a reason Hall & Oates sold somewhere near 40 million records in their lifetime. There’s a reason Steely Dan can continue to tour outdoor sheds nearly half a century into their career. There’s a reason Steve Winwood was once honored as an icon by Broadcast Music Incorporated. This kind of stuff satisfies a very specific bone in a music lover’s body. It’s smooth. It’s groovy. It’s funky. It’s harmless.
It’s also all over the man born Andrew Cohen’s latest set, Man About Town. He’s called this “the most Mayer Hawthorne album yet” and he’s not wrong. After a spotty play for pop prominence with 2013’s Where Does This Door Go, a return to the R&B landscape seemed mandatory, and these 10 songs more than meet that requirement. Gone is the list of A-list producers (cough, Pharrell, cough), and in is what made 2009’s A Strange Arrangement and 2011’s How Do You Do so exciting: Cohen’s the captain of a blue-eyed ship where he makes all the decisions and plays most all the instruments.
The move pays off in soulful spades. Single “Cosmic Love” is a throwback to the Philadelphia sound of the 1960s in the most delicious of ways. Anchored by a slowed-down silky surface, it has all the ingredients of a seriously sexy soiree: smooth, funky guitar, retro-fitted live drums that offer up a straight and singular groove, and Cohen’s irresistible falsetto. The subliminal spaced-out effects that float in and out of the backing track only add somewhat imperative mystics around such a cosmic concoction.
“Get You Back” keeps things slow while switching the construct from simmering soul to Motown waltz. Swaying along at a 6/8 time signature, it’s an update on the balladry heard on A Strange Arrangement. Lyrically, Cohen’s blend of heartbreak is just a little more matured than it was seven years ago as here, he both wonders what he did wrong and then pines for getting someone back before noting how the smell of perfume on a pillow messes him up. It’s a long way away from a passage such as “Could it be that your love was meant for me/Maybe so, maybe no.”
He’s still at his most complete, however, when he’s channeling 1980s pop radio. “Love Like That” even has a little bit of Phil Collins (via “Easy Lover”) in it. Staccato keys paint the verses while an endearingly kitschy chorus features an appreciated female backing vocal that adds girth to the production. “The Valley” then offers up a lot of the same -- stripped down electronics that sound so old, they’re new in the same ways Kanye West pulled it off with 808s & Heartbreak -- but here, the singer adds a dash of Steely Dan accessibility, most notably when the hook opens up.
The most interesting moments come when Cohen veers into territories you might not expect. “Lingerie & Candlewax” is Get Lifted John Legend whenever John Legend decided to be inspired by California (“I Can Change”). Musically, it’s the darkest moment on a record that is otherwise blindingly bright (the quick a cappella opening title track steals so much from the Beach Boys, you almost worry that Mike Love might make Mayer Hawthorne his next courtroom crusade). Dr. Dre-like keys lead the verses before ominous horns rise to complete what has to be an entirely harmless cruise through Compton.
Better yet is “Fancy Clothes”, which gives pause along with an internal monologue that reads, “Oh, so he’s doing reggae now!”. Surprisingly, it mostly succeeds, even if the processed rhythm section reminds you that if you want roots, you still have to head to Jamaica. Either way, the guitar soloing is impressive and tasteful, especially for a guy who isn’t often associated with the genre, and vocally, Cohen even manages to pull off rastafarian textures pretty well for a Jewish kid from Michigan. It works because it’s unexpected, but it’s unexpected because it works.
Which, as a whole, kind of sums of Man About Town. Fans of Mayer Hawthorne’s earlier, more retrofitted R&B-laced work had reason to worry after hearing the shine of Where Does This Door Go. Yet with this set, any perceived anxiety ought to be put to rest. Or in other words, just when you might have been ready to give up on Andy Cohen, he returns to form with a slightly unforeseen pop-soul record, and all “That guy sold out!” whispers need not proceed among the masses.
Because, like it or not, there aren’t many people who can pull off what Mayer Hawthorne does best these days as well as Mayer Hawthorne does it. It fills a very real void in an increasingly crowded and grossly jaded pop music world. It is, in essence, important work.
Just ask Hall & Oates. Or Steve Winwood. Or Steely Dan.