New 'Static,' Same Perception

"Sleep Through the Static" was rumored to be a career- and image-changing project for the surf-folk singer-songwriter. Dude, that's so not happening. (By Thomas Campbell)
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By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Jack Johnson has carved out a lucrative singer-songwriter career by being an eccentricity-free Everyman onto whom just about any fan's musical desires can be projected. He's a less complicated Ben Harper, a male Colbie Caillat, a James Taylor for people whose cultural reference points include "The Big Lebowski" and Warren Miller skiing documentaries. In the months before anybody actually heard it, Johnson's new disc, "Sleep Through the Static," was rumored to be the sort of career-changing album that would put an end to all that and challenge everybody's conceptions of what a Jack Johnson album sounds like.

But Johnson's bluesy surf-folk sound is a surprisingly stubborn thing: Underneath all that laconic blandness there's an ordered ecosystem, a rigid sonic formula, that "Sleep Through the Static" either won't or can't do much to upend. It relies heavily upon Johnson's two main lyrical specialties: micro-personal relationship ballads and State of the Earth chill-out songs, the latter usually couched in surfing metaphors of the "we're all just grains of sand" variety ("They Do, They Don't," the modified shuffle "Monsoon").

"Static" also adds a third, mostly new component: the Dude Philosophizer protest song. Johnson has dabbled in political commentary before, but not this explicitly, nor at this length. "Static" favors crackling stream-of-consciousness antiwar lyrics. "Freedom can be freezing/Take a picture from the pretty side," goes the ambling, spoken-sung title track. "Mind your manners, wave your banners/What a wonderful world that this angle can see."

The words are pointed enough on paper, but are robbed of any sting by his untroubled delivery. While much has been made of Johnson's enduring, blank-faced amiability (and it's all true -- if he were any more mellow, he would be dead), seldom has his tabula-rasa voice worked to such a disadvantage. Being lectured by Jack Johnson on the perils of American global misadventures is an experience roughly akin to being nibbled by an angry kitten.

"Static" beefs up Johnson's usual leisurely, reggae-fied acoustic folk songs with the occasional piano or electric guitar, neither of which does much to change their essential nature: These are sweet, mild-hearted folk songs.

And, sometimes, that's enough: Johnson has never gotten enough credit for his hearth-and-home ballads, his keenly observed odes to domestic pleasures. His best tracks are usually the ones that traffic in the everyday joys of pancake breakfasts, pictures in a shoebox, girls with wonky toes. "Angel" and "Go On" are both child-centric love songs that mine a similar vein, and on the improbably great "Same Girl," he warmly praises his wife for framing her own paintings, possibly the only time in the history of music that this has happened.

The less effortful these songs seem, the better they are. On an album that struggles with questions of identity and change, they're the only tracks on which Johnson seems content to sound exactly like himself.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Hope," "Same Girl," "If I Had Eyes"

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