Many soul fans with a preference for antique R&B have never quite “got” Mayer Hawthorne, viewing his retro-inspired offerings as little more than pallid pastiches that warrant suspicion. They question whether he is authentic or a charlatan and wonder if he’s someone who’s genuinely serious or just a disingenuous piss-taker. While for some, the jury is still out on Ann Arbor’s protean sonic shape-shifter – whose eclectic CV unequivocally demonstrates that he’s every bit as comfortable with vintage R&B and yacht rock as he is with cutting-edge hip-hop joints – this writer confesses a certain fondness for Hawthorne’s previous oeuvre.
At this point in his career, Mayer Hawthorne has managed to make three solid solo albums (and a few pretty good collaborative ones) that have allowed the Ann Arbor native to bounce seamlessly between sub-genres of soul, funk and R&B. His debut record--2009's A Strange Arrangement--featured him tackling '60s soul with a fantastic croon that brought him worthy attention. His 2011 follow-up, How Do You Do, broadened the palate with the introduction of 70s-era grooves reminiscent of Hall & Oates (more on that in a moment).
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.
Ladies and gentlemen, America's leading nerdy love man is back! Mayer Hawthorne established himself as a modern master of '60s- and '70s-style R&B on his first two albums, 2009's A Strange Arrangement and 2011's How Do You Do. If 2013's Where Does This Door Go was a bit less exciting than his breakout works, 2016's Man About Town shows Hawthorne's got most of his old mojo back. As on Where Does This Door Go, Hawthorne has folded some '70s soft rock into his formula ("Fancy Clothes" and "The Valley" could pass for Steely Dan in dim light).
As a young, LA-based purveyor of kitschy funk and soul, Mayer Hawthorne treads a fine line between parody and sincerity. Out-and-out comedy acts such as Flight of the Conchords have plundered a similar tranche of 70s styles in order to cast themselves as hilariously grotesque singer-seducers; but when Hawthorne samples orgasmic moaning, it serves more as a knowing wink than an actual joke. For the most part, he remains in relatively banal lyrical territory on this fourth album, but what he’s able to do with some aplomb is capture the majestic effortlessness of the Motown sound – and nailing the style alone (on the likes of Cosmic Love and Get You Back) means he is able to draw on its huge appeal.
Mayer Hawthorne’s recent work with Daryl Hall has clearly influenced the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter’s fourth solo record, which unmistakably evokes the melodic soul-informed pop of early Hall and Oates. Hawthorne has the sunny, blue-eyed soul man glide down by now; unfortunately, he barely extends his range here, apparently saving his more adventurous tendencies for his side projects. At times he slips into cruise control, especially while overworking falsetto on “Breakfast in Bed.” As a vocalist, he frequently genuflects to Hall, mirroring his tone, inflections, and phrasing (even those oohs and whoahs).