First Listen: Mayer Hawthorne, 'Where Does This Door Go'

by Stephen Thompson

Mayer Hawthorne's new album, Where Does This Door Go, comes out July 16.
Mayer Hawthorne's new album, Where Does This Door Go, comes out July 16. (Courtesy of the artist)
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    Jul 7, 2013

In the course of three studio albums, Michigan-bred soul singer Mayer Hawthorne has refined his gift for songs that emulate and update his home state's Motown sound. As he's picked up major-label backing — as well as guest assists on the new Where Does This Door Go from the ubiquitous likes of Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams — Hawthorne has transformed himself from underground indie-soul curiosity to imminent star.

He's done so, in part, by sticking to a largely innocent persona: Though little bursts of profanity and transgression poke through now and then on Where Does This Door Go (out July 16), Hawthorne most frequently plays the role of reluctant Lothario; he's a romantic bystander, victim or dupe rather than a predator. In "Back Seat Lover," he seems to lament being pulled into a tawdry secret fling — only to conclude, "Well, let's get it on, then." In the slickly catchy "The Innocent," the woman in the scene he sets is cast as a bloodthirsty conqueror; the song itself calls to mind Hall & Oates' "Maneater" in more ways than one.

Hawthorne's similarities to Hall & Oates don't end there: Though they lean on (and add to) different regional soul traditions, and Hall's is a more commanding voice, both artists find an appealing and accessible midpoint between classic soul and contemporary pop — and never feel like tourists in either setting. Hawthorne has long been a student of the music that precedes him, with skills as a composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist that take him well beyond mimicry. (Comparisons to the smooth proficiency of Steely Dan are well-placed.) Along the way, Hawthorne has carved out a contemporary niche for himself as a musician with a gift for fusing past and present sounds in ways that render them indistinguishable from each other.

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