From the pervasive soundtrack of “Curious George” to the beachy tranquility of “Banana Pancakes,” Jack Johnson’s optimistic, laid-back songwriting style has become a backdrop to countless childhoods worldwide. With effortlessly hypnotic vocals and a beautifully understated guitar playing style, it’s no wonder why Johnson’s repertoire has become so deeply ingrained within the modern folk ecosystem.
On his latest record, Meet the Moonlight, Johnson’s emblematic stylings from the early aughts remain –– now, however, they shine with significantly less charm than two decades prior. While his melodic ability has only improved throughout the years, Johnson’s lyricism has become steeped in cliché, and for much of his recent album, it comes off as especially lazy.
With a couple of gems sprinkled throughout the tracklist, the record is not unlistenable by any means. The LP undeniably soothes listeners, but quickly dissolves into a musical mush of indistinguishable folk-rock tunes.
Luckily, the album’s opener, “Open Mind,” is one of the work’s definite highlights. With crystal clear vocals and a bouncy guitar riff taking center stage throughout the play, listeners are introduced to Johnson’s distinctive peacefulness. Singing “Everything around us is begging just to be/ Loved a little more, we can pray to anything,” the song’s lyricism glows simple and bright, granting Johnson’s audience a false sense of hope that the remainder of the record will live up to his previous compositions. Yet, the song’s lack of storytelling and vision hints at the latter tracks’ shortcomings –– a preview of the LP’s lyrical downfall.
“Calm Down,” for instance, lacks the bit of charm that lies within “Open Mind.” With the lyrics “Yeah, calm down/ I’m right here with you, let’s calm down/ And when this world, it won’t calm down/ Come over here and let’s calm down,” the track is, at the very best, grating. Paired with a leisurely slide guitar and an ingenuine veil of happiness, what could have been an easy listen drags one into a repetitive musical purgatory.
While “Calm Down” acts as the unquestionable low point of the record, the record thankfully picks up with melodic peak “3AM Radio.” Subtle key changes and affecting acoustic solos grab listeners’ attention and hold onto it throughout the track. Johnson spotlights his doubled vocals, as he delivers a noteworthy performance of the otherwise simple melody. At some points, it focuses on heartbreak, while at other times it shifts to discussing rebelling against “the system”; the unorganized track lacks the lyrical sharpness that made songs like “Upside Down” hits in the first place. While “3AM Radio” is fine all things considered, Johnson’s lackluster lyrics hold the track back from being an absolute success.
Just about the entire record falls to the same fate as the aforementioned songs. “Don’t Look Now” attempts to be an optimistic and upbeat love song, but with lyrics such as “Selfies in the shore break/ Fake news with your cornflakes,” Johnson traps his readers within a neoliberal hellscape. “Costume Party” is accompanied by a charming calliope instrumental, yet Johnson sings vapid lines such as “Wishing that you were here with me/ Or maybe I was there with you, whatever,” making for a cutesy, but nonetheless dull, outcome.
On the other hand, just as with the album’s opener, closing song “Any Wonder” is another highlight of the tracklist. Singing in a lower register, Johnson’s vocals perfectly pair with his uncomplicated yet impactful guitar riffs. Deeply emotional, light synths in the background lock listeners into the melancholic soundscape. The song’s grief-stricken lyrics grasp the clarity that former tracks so clearly lacked. Heartfully belting about fading shadows and the struggles of letting go, the otherwise mediocre record closes undeniably strong.
While it is clear that he is no longer in his songwriting prime, some of Johnson’s strengths still linger throughout the album. Johnson’s vocals remain incredibly comforting, and his enticing melodic structures are worthy of praise in their own right — it’s a shame to see disappointing lyricism bring the otherwise impressive LP down. A perfect record to doze off to, Meet the Moonlight will seldom see the light of day.
Contact Ian Fredrickson at [email protected].