I’m having a hard time writing about Mayer Hawthorne’s sophomore album How Do You Do because all I want to do is listen to the song “A Long Time” over and over again. It’s the type of catchy tune you find yourself replaying constantly; the type you’ll probably want to recommend to friends, but it’s smooth enough that your parents might like it too. Like most of Hawthorne’s work, it’s of a piece with the neo-soul revival that’s been going on in recent years (what kind of music do you think Amy Winehouse was singing, anyway?) but this song is such a direct throwback to mid-70s Motown that I can barely tell the difference between it and the original thing.
“A Long Time” is an anthem for an economically devastated Detroit—“We’ll return it to its former glory. But it just takes so long,” sings Hawthorne about his hometown—but its sentiment can easily apply to the rest of the country as well. In case you haven’t noticed, Americans aren’t feeling so glorious right now.
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Hawthorne is an endearingly geeky 32-year-old white boy with glasses; he looks like the guy at the record store who will tell you, “You have to listen to Curtis Mayfield,” not someone who actually sounds like him. But whatever Hawthorne lacks in cred, he makes up with passion. The album’s 12 songs are some of the tightest, most polished pieces of music I’ve heard this fall. Hawthorne deftly revives the “Let’s Get it On” bedroom ballad with album opener, “Get to Know You.” (It’s about how he, um, really wants to get to know you). “The Walk” is a Smokey Robinson send-up with lyrics so passive-aggressive they’d make even Cee-Lo cringe. And I don’t know what the male back-up singers in “Hooked” are up to, but they make me think of the Temptations.
Yes, I’ve just name-checked a lot of people. If you’re acquainted with soul (and if you’re not, shame), How Do You Do will definitely feel familiar—but not derivative. Hawthorne started out as a hip-hop DJ and although there’s no hip-hop on the album, he brings a bit of a funkier, modern edge to his work that truly vintage songs lack. On some songs, Hawthorne plays guitar in a way that sounds almost indie rock. And on one track, “Can’t Stop,” Snoop Dogg sings. It’s kind of weird.
OK, look, I’m gonna go back to listening to “A Long Time” now. You should too: