On To The Sea, everybody’s favourite surfer-turned-singer Jack Johnson goes electric and stretches the scope of his Oahu studio. The sound falls right in line with the rest of his catalogue while expanding on his happy-hippie jam band sound. It’s vintage Johnson, but campfire strum-alongs are replaced by more riff-driven stuff that hints at Johnson’s own reverence for Jimi Hendrix, albeit in an extremely laid-back way.
In his early days, it may have been tempting to dismiss Johnson as one-trick beach bum. But, as he’s proven over the course of his previous five albums, he has endless variations on his subject matter, ranging from young love to rampant consumerism to environmental activism to, well, surfing. And, it helps that his one trick is such an effortlessly feel-good one.
He’s built a mythology around himself as a simple island-dweller, surviving on mangoes and surfing all day, living in a tree house, and quietly raising a family while the world around him lumbers to its eventual self-destruction. He’s an outside opinion; a conscientious objector sending whimsical dispatches from a distant island paradise.
Johnson hinted at his musical progression on his 2008 album Sleep Through The Static, which still maintained the usual waves-meet-sand strumming stuff, accompanied at times by a clean electric guitar and rounded out by the addition of a full-time pianist. On To The Sea, riffing and full-band jamming take the lead, adding Mellotron, Wurlitzer, harmonica, and a surprising amount of vintage guitar fuzz to the mix.
From the album’s outset, the lead single You And Your Heart rocks harder than anything that’s come before it. But Johnson’s sunny disposition and constant wordplay cut melodiously through it all, providing a solid foundation that longtime fans will find immediately comforting.
At Me Or With Me opens deceivingly with quiet piano plunking, only to explode into a rave-up.� “People are just trying to fit in,” Johnson sings over a halftime stomp. “But is there something telling you, you can’t trust anyone in this town? Oh, baby, those are such great shoes.” Similarly, Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology slinks and stamps through a groove right out of the White Stripes songbook. Here, Johnson adds not one, but two harmonicas in tandem; it’s got a front-porch feel, a charming spontaneity.
Plenty will continue to dismiss Jack Johnson as a phenomenon of the twenty-something Dave Matthews crowd. His wordplay can border on cutesy from time to time; no more obvious here than on the downright annoying Pictures Of People Taking Pictures. Johnson is often written off as background music – as boring, even – but To The Sea offers a slightly rougher counterpointing edge.
Even at its loudest, there’s nothing objectionable or earth shattering about To The Sea; but there doesn’t really need to be. In this age of oil slicks and sundry other manmade catastrophes, it’s not such a bad thing to be reminded that Jack Johnson’s still around, taking it easy in his mythical island paradise.