Mayer Hawthorne doesn’t insist you take him seriously. He shoots deliberately goofy videos. His vibe is playful, not tortured and belabored. Yet his records rank among the most detailed and precise of today’s vintage soul practitioners, even if the results favor pure entertainment over profound enlightenment.
On his third album, the cheeky guy gets a bit more serious. Teaming with Pharrell Williams, Anthony Hamilton/Cee-Lo Green producer Jack Splash, Mika/Katy Perry collaborator Greg Wells and other hit-makers, he broadens his palate beyond the blueprints of the past, mixing, matching and updating styles rather than the straightforward Motown and Philly soul mimicry of his initial records. Now he alludes to Steely Dan, Frank Ocean, Hall & Oates and Pharrell himself, particularly on the Williams-produced cuts “Wine Glass Woman” “Reach Out Richard,” and “The Stars Are Ours.”
Having spent the past few years constantly touring and recording, Hawthorne sings more confidently while also doing a better job of masking his vocal limitations. Multi-tracking and other production tricks haven’t turned him into Marvin Gaye, but they help him get Doobie-smooth on “Back Seat Lover.” And although that opening song picks up where earlier cocky cuts like “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” left off, much of what follows is sincere: “Wine Glass Woman” and “Allie Jones” send reality checks to self-destructive vixens; “The Only One” and the title track ponder life’s vicissitudes, while “Reach Out Richard” addresses a father who blames himself for Hawthorne’s mistakes.
The singer takes all that heaviness and, through his newfound polish and plenty of allusions to ’70s West Coast pop, makes it all seem much lighter and sunny. Hawthorne and his producers play most of these elaborate arrangements themselves, but the buffed results suggest an all-American variant on the studio perfectionism Daft Punk rediscovered with Random Access Memories. Instead of packing tart punch lines into his falsetto love ballads, he makes the music itself far more fun.