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 is driven primarily by dizzyingly intricate bass lines and a solid rhythmic foundation, with elements of pianos and keyboards and brass (among many other instruments) scattered throughout the album. It also shows off Hawthorne’s increasingly impressive vocal abilities, extending his range from the confident and powerful low-register style of “Back Seat Lover” to the R&B falsetto crooning of “Crime.”
The most notable addition to Where Does This Door Go is the extra emphasis on Hawthorne’s hip-hop influences. Much like with the Snoop Dogg guest appearance on How Do You Do, Hawthorne enlists today’s most sought-after young rapper, Kendrick Lamar, to come in and lay down a gradually intensifying verse in the bridge of “Crime,” but he dabbles in hip-hop instrumentation in many other, less obvious places on the record, particularly on the songs “The Only One” and “Wine Glass Woman.”
That being said, Hawthorne experiments with a number of other styles on this album, as well, and many songs feature funky, grooving rhythms that make them significantly more danceable than a lot of his previous material, such as “Corsican Rosé” or “The Innocent.” Other songs are clearly inspired by modern pop music; “Back Seat Lover” sounds alarmingly like it could be a Michael Bublé song, while the album’s closing track, “All Better,” is primarily made up of an electric piano and emotive electric guitar slides that make it reminiscent of your average ‘70s pop song, right down to its upbeat lyrics about the healing power of love.
The album’s standout song, however, is the fourth track, “Allie Jones,” with its reggae-infused bass line, complex vocal arrangements and hip-hop beat; it’s the best example of Hawthorne’s meshing of disparate styles, while still retaining a bit of his old soul vibe and displaying his abilities as a vocalist, all wrapped up in one four-minute-long beast of a song.
Of course, his decision to fuse even more hip-hop, R&B and pop music into his sound isn’t going to do much to quell the growing number of Justin Timberlake comparisons that tend to get thrown around when discussing Hawthorne’s work, especially with songs like “Wine Glass Woman,” “Her Favorite Song,” and “Corsican Rosé,” which all undeniably sound influenced by Timberlake. Thankfully, Mayer Hawthorne is able to differentiate himself quite a bit on this album, not resting on the “groovy white guy crooning about girls and sex and partying” schtick that J.T. has had cornered for the better part of a decade now.
Upon a first listen, Where Does This Door Go may be a lot to take in, as it covers a wide range of sounds and styles in its 52-minute runtime, but it also packs an immediate punch, and Hawthorne’s growth as a composer is evident by the end of the first song, making this easily his best album to date.