Release Date: Jul 16, 2013
Record label: Republic
Genre(s): R&B, Retro-Soul, Alternative R&B
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.
With his latest album, Where Does This Door Go, Mayer Hawthorne has officially moved beyond just being a sort of throwback soul singer and become a genre-melding pop artist who seems to be coming into his own as a songwriter and arranger just in time to achieve major mainstream success. Where Does This Door Go has a lot going on, and it’s clear to see how Hawthorne has built upon the style he was just beginning to cultivate on his last album, 2011’s How Do You Do, where he infused his retro-soul sound with elements of pop, R&B and even a smattering of hip hop, creating a style that seemed more uniquely his own than his earlier work, although still owing a lot to the soul pioneers before him. However, on this newest release, Hawthorne has thrown more of his modern influences into the pot and blended it all together more thoroughly, crafting a record that is ultimately more dynamic and interesting than anything he’s done before.
Where Does This Door Go, the third album by Los Angeles neo-soul crooner Mayer Hawthorne, begins post-coitally. There’s a satisfied moan, a pair of pants being zipped up, and a woman’s voice saying, “Wait, you’re not going to tell anyone about this right?”, only to be followed by a surprised “Huh?!” It’s a slightly sleazy, somewhat comical way to introduce the album, but with the first proper track, “Backseat Lover,” Hawthorne commits to being that low-down secret mister on the down-low, and he owns the part, no matter how seamy. But Hawthorne doesn’t do sweatily scandalous slow jams like R.
When it comes to contemporary R&B/soul, Mayer Hawthorne has been on the bill since 2009, playing the role of Renaissance man or dilettante, depending on your vantage point. With Where Does This Door Go, Mayer Hawthorne's got a brand new bag. The first thought that occurs after taking in the third groovy offering from the Michigan-born artist (aka Andrew Mayer Cohen) is, "did he go on feverish Steely Dan and Hall & Oates listening bender just before making it?" At this point, Hawthorne's got his musical methodology down pat — the reverse engineering of classic Motown and related soul-pop influences in a manner that doesn't belabour the point.
If you really want to get where Mayer Hawthorne's coming from, it's not enough to just check out his first two studio albums, A Strange Arrangement and How Do You Do. Those records got retro-soul revivalist tags stapled on to them, thanks to a hip-hop fiend's sense of vintage soul that drew heavily off Stax/Motown goodwill vibes. But the real scope of his musical influences jump out on the 2011 covers EP, Impressions, where his classic R&B leanings ran the gamut from the well-loved Isleys to the obscure Festivals.
Mayer Hawthorne already had three solid albums of retro-soul in his back catalog, so with album number four, it's just natural that he spreads his wings a bit. The Ann Arbor-bred, L. A.
His former albums were the pure definition of "retro-soul", but Mayer Hawthorne's third ventures into more experimental grounds, with the 34-year-old Detroit singer, DJ and producer inviting members of his creative clique along for the ride. Omnipresent collaborator Pharrell Williams, rapper Kendrick Lamar and neo-soul singer Jessie Ware all add sprinkles of magic, but for every Steely Dan-inspired prog interlude or hypnotised N*E*R*Dism, there's a smug-faced dinner party excursion: Backseat Lover is so tackily smooth it could have been penned by SNL comedy group The Lonely Island, while Wine Glass Woman steals a page from David Brent's lyric book, with Hawthorne poignantly reflecting, "Wine Glass Woman/ See the fire in your eyes/ But your victory will be your own demise. " Packed with cleverly crafted production, Where Does This Door Go may be a sonic adventure, but it's not quite slick enough to challenge the current crop of R&B luminaries.
“I truly did not give a fuck on this album,” Mayer Hawthorne publicly claimed about Where Does This Door Go. “It was very freeing for me.” For the first time in his career, Hawthorne has relinquished the producer’s chair — albeit to a group of coveted names including Pharrell, John Hill (Pink, Santigold), Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, John Legend), and Greg Wells (Adele, Ozzy Osbourne). The collective have supported Hawthorne in his expansion outside of his retro-soul aesthetic.
On his first two LPs, Mayer Hawthorne revived Detroit- and Philly-style soul with the fumbling charm of a nerd who finds himself in the spotlight. Here he attempts glittery club sounds, but soul remains his natural habitat. Standouts like "The Only One" balance slickness and melancholy; low points feature robot voices having orgasms. Once a low-key Casanova, now he wants to rock all night.
Mayer Hawthorne moves away from retro-Motown stylings without completely reinventing himself on his third record filled with breezy pop. The singer-DJ and his all-star producers, including Pharrell, know how to craft sharply arranged, addictive songs; unfortunately the music still sounds too beholden to the past. Many of the tracks come across as homages to blue-eyed soul sources ranging from Daryl Hall to Boz Scaggs.