Native Hawaiian Jack Johnson had a first career as a professional surfer, and then as a filmmaker -- he shot surf videos -- before his eventual turn as a feel-good singer-songwriter. This bit of information will likely come as little surprise to anyone familiar with Johnson's first two albums, Brushfire Fairytales and On and On, both breezy, carefree and acoustic affairs reminiscent of Johnson's neo-hippie forefathers: Ben Harper, G. Love, et al.
Recorded before Johnson's band had ever played live, Fairytales was something of a sleeper hit; many of its folk and blues-influenced pop ballads, especially "Bubble Toes" and "Flake," became instant beach-scene classics in places such as Australia and Southern California. On and On, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and eventually went platinum, was sunnier and more hook-filled still. But not everyone was buying the hopeful, Pollyanna attitude Johnson was selling -- least of all crusty rock journals like Rolling Stone and Spin. One critic, no doubt jaded from years spent working in an often-vicious music business, even suggested that Johnson's well-adjusted, straight-arrow demeanor must surely be put-on.
But with In Between Dreams, Johnson's third release (or his fourth, if you count the soundtrack to Thicker Than Water, his award-winning surf documentary), the trend continues: acoustic bonfire singalongs, simple 4/4 percussion and Johnson's own sleepy, hopeful voice. Clearly missing, though, are the radio-ready singles of Johnson albums past, which wouldn't be an issue if his neo-folk style were intellectually deeper, or more technically complicated. (Many of The Grateful Dead's most enduring albums, for instance, are nearly chorus-free.)
On first listen (or even second, or third), In Between Dreams has only a few instances of pure brilliance, with "Good People" and "Situations" as the obvious standouts. But listen closer, and listen more, and In Between Dreams seems to morph slowly into Jack Johnson's version of Radiohead's Kid A; there are deeply hidden sounds and expressions and subtle degrees of nuance that simply don't rise to the surface without repeated spins. In Between Dreams is also playful and unashamedly silly at times. Johnson claims that becoming a father has forced his songwriting into even goofier territory, which may help explain why it hasn't left my stereo for the better part of a week, regardless of the fact that it's hardly my favorite of Johnson's back catalog.
So just to recap: Sleepy, hopeful, simple. Subtle, playful, silly. To put it simply? Pure genius, but far from perfect. Mahalo, Jack. You've done it again.