Michigan-bred singer-songwriter Mayer Hawthorne has a little problem with being taken seriously. His throwback Motown hooks and Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto just don’t seem natural coming from a nerdy-looking white guy from the Midwest. It also doesn’t help that he staged a semi-goofy, semi-genuine live-streamed halftime show from his parents’ house in 2011 after Nickelback was tapped for the real thing at the Detroit Lions’ annual Thanksgiving game. People may like Hawthorne, but he’s always been more of a novelty than a 100 percent respected artist.
His third album, Where Does This Door Go, aims for respectability. He’s abandoned, for the most part, the Motown riffs and the creamy falsetto. He’s enlisted topnotch contemporary producers, including Pharrell Williams, to give the album a modern spin on retro R&B. And he’s added more than a dash of ’70s sophistication to the mix, which gives songs like “Allie Jones” a Steely Dan-like slickness.
Where Does This Door Go’s best songs fall somewhere between Hawthorne’s past and present: the bass-heavy and hip-hop-leaning “Her Favorite Song,” “Reach Out Richard” (another nod to Steely Dan), and “The Stars Are Ours,” which draws from both Steely Dan (yet again) and frequent collaborator Michael McDonald. The hooks throughout are clean, retro, and polished. Not all of them work, though. “Robot Love” is as mechanical as its title and concept suggest, and “Crime,” featuring a Kendrick Lamar rap, sounds out of place on an album mostly trafficking in grooves.
And for all of his apparent devotion to the genre, Hawthorne comes off somewhat soulless on Where Does This Door Go. As with his previous two albums, he’s got a style down. The problem is, it’s someone else’s style—mostly Donald Fagen’s this time, but he channels Elton John on the closing ballad “All Better,” which curves almost as much as “Crime.” And, frankly, he doesn’t seem to be having as much fun as he did on his past records. But that happens when seeking respect is the prime motivator. Just ask Steely Dan.