After a promising start with his first three albums, the surfer-singer's latest effort sounds pleasant enough but lethargic.
Jack Johnson: To the Sea
It didn't seem possible that Jack Johnson, the Hawaiian surfer/song-writer, could get any more laid back. He appeared, after his debut album Brushfire Fairytales put his name on everybody's lips back in 2001, to be permanently surfing or sitting around the camp fire strumming. Had he stumbled across fame by accident? Had a well-connected tourist slipped his demo tape to a record company after an impromptu beach singalong? Barefoot and carefree, he sang sweet songs about life and love and banana pancakes, and didn't seem to care whether he had a record deal or not. Either way, he'd be at the beach, guitar in hand, sprawled out in a hammock.
His next two albums, On and On (2003) and In Between Dreams (2005), perpetuated the myth. His voice drifted through every car stereo, and provided the background music for every slow-tempo gathering. It was as if playing some Jack Johnson could make anyone, even in the coldest, darkest place, feel the crunch of sand between their toes. Then suddenly we all got bored with it and decided we wanted something with a bit more edge. Johnson, though, couldn't bring himself to rise from his hammock. Which brings us to inspirationally titled To the Sea (just in case we had forgotten what he spends the rest of his time doing). What was laid-back in 2001 has since become horizontal. And here we get the sense that he can still just about muster the energy to produce a few chords, to which he croaks out some one-syllable lyrics.
Trouble is, nothing much happens by the sea, as is evidenced in Pictures of People Taking Pictures. Yes, he is actually singing about people taking pictures. Of people taking pictures. Amy Winehouse, your crown is safe. It's not that we wish disarray on Johnson's idyllic island existence. But in terms of song-writing material, surfing, waves and sun are tough to stretch out over five albums without sounding a touch bland. Someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture was probably by far the most interesting thing happening on the beach that day. Worthy of an entire song, in fact.
Relentless positivity is of course Johnson's trademark. And he can be forgiven for not having the meatiness of a nervous breakdown to croak about. But without a decent melody to hook all the sunshine on, To the Sea lacks the charm of some of his previous work. All the tracks are pleasant enough, in a sort of perfect-for-five-minutes-in-the-Quicksilver-changing-room type way. But where are the Bubble Toes? And BananaPancakes? Too much of a good thing seems to have robbed the man of any kind of innovation. "Got to get to the sea," he sings in the title track. Perhaps he'll be better off there. Someone, though, may need to give his hammock a quick spin.