Mayer Hawthorne, with the boyish looks and his love for mom-friendly 60s-influenced soul, makes a play for adulthood on his new album, Where Does This Door Go. The man doesn’t want to be stuck in the oldies-revival section of the record store anymore, and who can blame him? Being known as an artist influenced by Motown and Curtis Mayfield can be an artistic trap that robs you of your own personality.
Hawthorne is now focusing on a different part of history, dipping into the late 70s and 80s—a well-timed move, since the sounds of this era has been increasingly popular with groups big (Daft Punk) and small (Quadron). The opening track on Where Does This Door Go has attracted a lot of Steely Dan comparisons, and it does indeed have the groovy electric keyboard work and pealing guitars that Steely Dan employed liberally on 1978’s Aja. “The Innocent” and “Robot Love” show that Hawthorne can filter early 80s pop-funk in the same manner as Chromeo or Ford and Lopatin. There are touches of programmed hip-hop beats to add a contemporary fusion effect to “Corsican Rose.”
But several times, Hawthorne just sounds like he’s recycling other people’s hits, in less catchy form. “The Only One” rips off the same chords as Maroon 5’s “This Love,” though at this point, Hawthorne can only dream of their type of commercial success. For “Wine Glass Woman,” Hawthorne brings in Pharrell, who reworks the same beat he used for Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful.” The DNA of this beat run through any number of early 00s Neptunes hits, all of which out-groove “Wine Glass Woman.”
Hawthorne’s breakout track, “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” was an innocent kiss-off, but this album starts with some erotic breathing in the back seat of a car. “You know that I’d never hit and tell,” sings Hawthorne, but “if I gotta be your groovy back seat lover, then let’s get it on.” The man’s in a series of relationships, most of which aren’t ideal. There’s a women who preys on the unsuspecting—“she’s got it and you want it”—so look out, and in “Robot Love,” he’s “makin’ love/ but it’s not enough” because “under the covers, it’s a one-way road.” He may be clean-shaven, but he can be naughty too.
Hawthorne tempers his light-hearted sex romps with a few misguided attempts at seriousness. “Her Favorite Song” is about a girl who gets stood up by some guy, “but when she gets home/ she puts her headphones on/ she plays her favorite song/ and fades away.” Music may have some healing power, but you won’t find it displayed here. “Crime,” with a cameo from Kendrick Lamar, touches on the intersection of weed, wine, and the police, with the chorus, “we just wanna party.” This has been done far better by other artists. Does Hawthorne have the charisma to pull off a 70s piano ballad? If you think yes, you’ll enjoy “All Better,” but it basically sounds like a cut-rate combination of songs by Todd Rundgren, Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney, and others.
“We’re breakin’ all the rules cause they’re getting in the way” sings Hawthorne on “The Stars Are Ours.” But there’s hardly a broken—or bended—rule to be found here. There’s some heavy breathing, but not much in the way of the heavy-hitting.