I have a question to ask all of you. Now, this is very important so I need you to lock your eyes on these words and give some serious thought to them before you answer. Here it is: How does a person, who also has tremendous talent in surfing and filmmaking, make three records that are nearly perfect? Think it over, and after you get done reading my review, feel free to answer either to yourself or with a comment to me.
When I first discovered Jack Johnson, with some help from a friend, I became intrigued with his laid-back style of playing and singing. I began my search as I do all of my new musical investigations, by starting with his most recent album, In Between Dreams. Tropical melodies reminiscent of Bob Marley or Jimmy Buffet were mixed with coolly, low sung vocals. I liked it. So I continued my exploration by listening to his first record, Brushfire Fairytales. Again, more serene melodies and deep, comforting vocals. So, I had heard the first and I had heard the last, but I hadn’t heard what came in between. And quiet honestly, I wasn’t overly excited about hearing it. There was little anticipation because I thought I knew exactly what I was going to be buying: another album full of the same melodies and the same vocals. And I got that. But I got more…
What’s included in “more”? Well, for starters, this album is much more blues-oriented than his other work. Part of this could be contributed to the overall message of On and On, which seems to aim partly towards politics and partly towards the media machine. But make no mistakes about it, there is still a huge involvement of “self.” Rather than approaching the topics of his songs as a blame game towards the government and the news, he admits to sharing the guilt. Also, the songs sound different because there is a bigger distinction between moods from song to song, which in turn, makes for an impressive collection of little riffs, melodies, and lyrics.
Treading familiar territory, Jack opens up with what could be considered the title track, because it includes the repetition of the line “on and on.” “Time Like These” eases the listener in with recognizable rhythms. The gentle strums are followed by gentle slaps on his acoustic guitar, while he delivers a constant volley of words with an up-and-down shuffle in his voice. Here, he sets the tone of the album by stating how things seem to never change, no matter what you do. This leads into the single “The Horizon Has Been Defeated,” which, if you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics, might be easy to construe as a mid-tempo, dare I say happy song? It features some of the playful word invention that Jack is well-known for. Evidence of this can be seen in nonsensical lines like “thingamajigsaw puzzled” and “hallelujah zig zag nothing.” It is lines like these that can sometimes understate the serious nature of the album’s songs. But ya know what? Sometimes that can be a good thing.
“Traffic in the Sky” has his signature feathery picking overtop of his signature gentle voice. Anybody surprised by that? Didn’t think so. I have the feeling many of you will get annoyed with me before you finish the review because you’ll likely see the same descriptions used for a lot of the songs. But no matter, I still enjoy the airy vibe he crafts. It’s the little things, like the “mm hmm’s” that he adds between lines that make it so pleasant.
If you’re wondering where the all of the blues is that I was referring to, you need to look no further than “Taylor.” The second single to be released off of On and On, and rightfully so, is one of the most addicting songs you will ever hear in your life. The storytelling aspect of the song is what initially drew me into the song. The narrative follows Taylor, a good girl turned corner-dwelling savant, and Peter, a metaphorical cheater cheater pumpkin eater. Both of them are trying to change their lives for the better. And Jack makes good use of alliteration with lines like “Peter Patrick pitter patters on the window” and “He thinks that singing on Sunday gonna save his soul.” But the song’s appeal stretches beyond the story. I find myself playing the opening guitar line just about every time I pick up my acoustic guitar, mostly because I can’t get enough of hearing it! The bluesy background is strong without being intrusive. Just a beautifully crafted song.
“Gone” immediately resonated with me after the first listen. I would have to say that this has one of the catchiest choruses he’s ever written, which is quite an impressive feat considering his song catalog. Here, he talks about how people worry less about who they are and more about who they’re wearing. (Here’s to you, Red Carpet walkers!) “Cupid” is a sweet, albeit short, vow of love and the devotion that needs to go with it. Meanwhile, the blues-tinged “Wasting Time” takes a different approach towards love, and looks at in the sense of just letting it happen. Basically, don’t force it!
Another simple, yet positively addicting guitar line plays throughout “Holes to Heaven,” which seems to lean towards the nonsensical side of things. There is a loose narrative about a trip that he’s taking with his friends, but it’s nothing that’s going to be turned into a screenplay anytime soon. Following the same type of rhythm and pattern, “Dreams Be Dreams” has probably the most simple and encouraging messages in the entire CD. That message? “Don’t let your dreams be dreams.” Jack pushes his listeners to follow their dreams and make them a reality. This blends right into “Tomorrow Morning,” which starts off slow with some fuzzy guitar work. After about 20 seconds of fuzziness, we are treated to another ode to being a dedicated husband. The highlight is the last chorus where he stretches his voice to show that he has the capacity to sing at quite a high range.
Then we have a double header of human outcry: “Fall Line” and “Cookie Jar.” The former contains one of the most unusually haunting lyrical passages I’ve heard from Mr. Johnson:
“Somebody saw him jump
Yeah, but nobody saw him slip
I guess he lost a lot of hope
And then he lost his grip
And now he’s lying in the freeway in the middle of this mess
Guess we lost another one, just like the other one”
“Cookie Jar” takes a look at the blame game is played out on TV every time a teenager goes on a murdering spree. What saves this song from becoming preachy is the fact that he concludes that he, himself, is partly to blame, along with everyone else.
“Rodeo Clowns” is a song that was originally done by G. Love & Special Sauce, but was written by Johnson. To be honest, I didn’t really like this song when I first heard it. I guess it’s one that just takes a few listens to grow on you, but when it does, it clings to your eardrums like gonorrhea to Paris Hilton. (I’ll never tire of making those jokes.) A smooth, blues melody introduces the song along with Jack’s quick tongue. But he slows it down for “Cocoon,” one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Even as a guy, I can’t help but start to tear up when I hear lines like “Your bound to win/Cause if I’m betting against you/I think I’d rather lose” and of course, the delicate chorus: “Take what’s left of this heart and use/Please use only what you really need/You know I only have so little so please/Mend your broken heart and leave.” I think that says it all.
“Mediocre Bad Guys,” is well, for the lack of a more fitting word, mediocre. It sounds like a down-trodden version of “Rodeo Clowns.” But he ends the album strong, with the basic, roots-blues pulse of “Symbol in My Driveway.” It takes a look at the things we choose to place the most value on in our society. Take a couple of guesses as to what that is. Is it love? No. Is it honor? Ha! Is it...money? You bet’cha! It does a pretty good job of summarizing what On and On is about.
To put it plainly, I’m not sure if this guy is capable of putting out a bad record. I think even if he tried to, the worst he could come up with is a decent album. So, if you’re looking for something politically charged, but with less of an edge than Green Day’s American Idiot, and something with more attention placed on beautifully crafted melodies, go out and about and pick up On and On…