Sleep through the Static
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2008, Volume 15, #2
Written by John Metzger
Tue February 19, 2008, 10:00 AM CST
Fatherhood has a way of changing a personís perspective on life. So does the untimely death of a young relative. Even Jack Johnson, the pro-surfer-turned-pop-star, isnít immune to the cataclysmic paradigm shifts that such major events typically bring. Since issuing his debut Brushfire Fairytales in 2001, Johnson consistently has demonstrated his knack for pulling terrific melodies out of thin air. Yet, his arrangements and his lyrics have been too banal for their own good. He had promised that his new effort Sleep through the Static would be a departure from his past work, and although he doesnít make a statement that is as grand as many had hoped, the set does at least find him moving forward in the right direction.
Musically speaking, Johnson plays Sleep through the Static close to his vest. Although the addition of keyboardist Zach Gill to his core band of drummer Adam Topol and bass player Merlo Podlewski has opened a few more doors for him, he only tentatively steps through them, making merely minor alterations to his signature style. Itís never an easy decision, of course, to mess with an identifiable brand name, and Johnson certainly has staked his claim to the mellow, folk-rock, surfer scene. After all, he has defined himself not only through his own catalogue of material, but also through his record label, which has launched the careers of fellow soul-stirrers Donavon Frankenreiter and Matt Costa.
To his credit, Johnson managed to sidestep the tediously monotonic ennui that has plagued his prior efforts, though Sleep through the Static remains less engaging than it otherwise could have been. Whenever he dabbles in reggae textures ó such as on Hope, a song that he wrote with Rogue Wave leader Zach Rogue ó he sounds like a supremely subdued version of Anthony Kiedis. Elsewhere, he cops from Meddle-era Pink Floyd (What You Thought You Need), while reaching for Jackson Browne and James Taylor on the title track and Same Girl, respectively. Yet, it still feels like something is missing, as if Johnson is holding back on submitting himself completely to the artistic process.
In a similar fashion, the lyrics that Johnson penned for Sleep through the Static never quite hit their mark. Yet, it nonetheless is here that he has shown the most growth. While itís true that his work still lacks the poetic qualities as well as the cohesiveness of Browneís or Taylorís output, Johnson at least has dropped his tendency toward writing annoyingly mundane love songs with nonsensical rhyming schemes. Not only does he look further inside himself, but he also continues to move outward, sharing his ruminations upon the state of the world ó which, most notably, are centered around the war in Iraq ó thus building upon some of the concepts that infiltrated his previous endeavor In Between Dreams. This time, the heavier themes that he tackles tug a little harder at the corners of Sleep through the Static, thereby providing an indication that, perhaps, there is more to Johnson than waves crashing upon sun-kissed Hawaiian beaches.
Considering, however, that three years have separated his most recent endeavors, itís frustrating that Johnson falls shy of making a bigger personal breakthrough. Instead of a surface abrasion, Johnson has opened a few wounds, but in the end, the cuts that he made arenít deep enough to allow his soul to devour his commercial aspirations. For all of the individual moments that succeed, for all of his well-intentioned ideas, and for all of the genuinely lovely arrangements that he creates, Sleep through the Static inevitably falls into a long, slumberous slipstream that begs for some spice. Still, one can hope that, regardless of what the sales figures for the album happen to be, Johnsonís maturing perspective ó which was born from his concerns over the future that he will leave for his children ó will continue to evolve, rather than stagnate or disappear into the ether from which they seemingly formed.
Sleep through the Static is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box