By Chris Moore:
RATING: 3 / 5 stars
If you’re looking for a benchmark three-star album, Jack Johnson’s To The Sea is a downright lovely candidate.
To The Sea is a charming little album populated by harmless pop songs that are predominantly driven by Johnson’s guitars, both acoustic and electric. There is, of course, the basic rhythm section we’ve come to expect: Adam Topol on drums and Merlo Podlewski on bass. This is all accented quite nicely by Zach Gill’s keyboards.
Here and there, as in the bare bones arrangement and thick harmonies of “When I Look Up,” Johnson diverges from the regularly scheduled program, but, for the most part, this is business as usual. Excellent tracks like “From the Clouds” and even the single “You and Your Heart” suffer from sounding too choreographed at times. The former heats up a bit at the end and the latter is catchy and lyrically interesting, so this deficiency is covered over for the most part, though it’s not so well disguised on others like “At or With Me.”
The stripped down, direct sentiment of “My Little Girl” and “Only the Ocean” is proof positive that Johnson hasn’t lost the knack for writing and performing simple songs that present cause for pause and reflection. Likewise, “Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology” is a catchy smirk-and-wink of a song, worthy of being termed anthemic even and thus illustrative of Johnson’s pop mentalities and abilities.
These aren’t the issues here.
What is questionable is the manner in which the other tracks blend together. On the one hand, they operate very cohesively, as an album. In addition to the commonalities in sound, the rhetoric of “No Good with Faces” on track three easily gives way to that on the third to last track “Pictures of People Taking Pictures,” as it does from the sociological commentary on uncertainty of track four, “At or With Me,” to the directness of the penultimate song, “Anything But the Truth.”
Clearly, To The Sea is more than merely a collection of songs written around the same time.
On the other hand, the tracks blend so well as to defy individuality at times. For instance, it is difficult to decide whether a song like “Turn Your Love” is grooving or falling into a rut. I have yet to figure out whether “The Upsetter” and “Pictures of People Taking Pictures” are moving, or whether the harmonies make up for what the words and instrumentation lack.
Ironically, this is the first time I’ve ever felt lukewarm about a Jack Johnson release. Accusations of lukewarmth have followed him his entire career, notably being the mantra chanted by those minimizing such outstanding albums as In Between Dreams and On and On. (Cough. Nudge. This means you and your sub-three star balderdash, Rolling Stone.)
Frankly, I’ve never really gotten into Brushfire Fairytales, but it has an appeal that I won’t deny, and it is also a debut effort. Likewise, I didn’t like Sleep Through the Static at first — in fact, I hated it. I felt it was a letdown following the “Jack Johnson goes electric” hype, and I resented the inordinate amount of attention it received from critics. However, when I eventually warmed to it, it came as a result of realizing that the individual songs were actually of very high quality. I still don’t think it compares as an album in the ranks of In Between Dreams and On and On, but song for song, it holds its own.
So, in summary, I’ve never felt lukewarm about Jack Johnson’s music.
The truth is that To The Sea is a likable — charming, even — studio album that lacks the punch, the elusive “x factor” to make it truly moving. It functions a little too nicely as background music. It’s a bit too chill, even for Johnson. Still, there are those moments, like his tender vocals on “No Good with Faces” and his electric solos on “To The Sea” and “At or With Me” — each singlehandedly better than any electric performance on Sleep Through the Static — that stand out from the rest, as if to remind us that Jack Johnson is an artist not to be underestimated.
You might love this album. You might think it’s forgettable. As such, there’s no better reason to award it a three-star rating.