Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Jack Johnson

Sleep Through the Static

Brushfire Records

Hawaiian-based pro-surfer-turned-musician Jack Johnson hasn’t written all the tunes in his repertoire about sunny topics like “Banana Pancakes” and “Bubble Toes” — although after listening to his new album, “Sleep Through the Static,” it certainly seems as though he’s been seeing a lot more rain lately.

Looking at the liner notes alone, it would be easy to be thrown off course. A photograph on the final page shows the artist basking in the rays while overlooking a vast horizon of solar panels — presumably the ones used to fuel the recording of this, his fourth solo album. However, as solar-powered as it may have been, a quick spin reveals darker musings than Mr. Johnson’s fans are used to hearing.

“Static” starts on a somber note with “All at Once,” a melancholy melody that begins with the lyrics, “All at once/ The world can overwhelm me/ There’s almost nothing that you could tell me/ That could ease my mind.”

The title track that follows takes on the war on terror as its chorus ponders, “Who needs keys when we’ve got clubs?/ Who needs please when we’ve got guns?”

From here, the mood of “Static” flickers, brightening for a spot or a whole song (including the somewhat trite but sweet love song “Angel”), but on the whole, it remains pensive, plaintive. Close readings of the lyrics show a preoccupation with time — something the notoriously laid-back Mr. Johnson may be more aware of these days, now that he’s 32, married with two kids and recently lost a 19-year-old cousin (Danny Riley, to whom the record is dedicated) to brain cancer.

Time and the life it adds up to is a complicated thing, to be sure, and Mr. Johnson muses on all its many facets. In the reggae-inflected “Hope,” “It’s fading away too soon.” In the first single and one of the disc’s peppier-sounding songs, “If I Had Eyes,” “Sometimes time doesn’t heal.” “Adrift” — a plodding, instrumentally spare tune in some ways reminiscent of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” — notes, “This moment keeps on moving/ We were never meant to hold on.”

Mr. Johnson balances these rather fatalistic observations with more positive ones. He lives in the moment with his honey on “What You Thought You Need” (which sounds a lot more like vintage Jack Johnson than other tracks) and marvels that even after all the years, she’s still his “Same Girl.” “Go On” discusses the children with “perfect little eyes” that they’ve made together and how the artist can live on through the next generation.

In addition to the deeper thoughts, the musician made other tweaks for this album, including swapping his acoustic guitar for an electric one in a few spots and inviting his touring keyboardist to join the groove. Perhaps Mr. Johnson’s goal was to defy the critics who have failed to see any artistic growth in his upbeat, surf-inspired singer-songwriter fare (last seen on the chart-topping soundtrack to “Curious George”). If so, he succeeds in proving he can paddle someplace slightly different. It’s too bad this new locale lacks a bit of the musical pep and punch of his previous works and that it might be a trek to a place his fans are unwilling to follow.

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