Mayer Hawthorne’s debut single last year, Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, marked him as a songwriter with an intuitive gift for the sounds of 60s Motown; I Wish It Would Rain, from his second single, suggested that he has a less assured feel for 70s-style soul ballads.
Hawthorne’s album, A Strange Arrangement, confirms this pattern with a collection of sweetly suggestive mid-tempo soul and slightly syrupy ballads. Opening with a prelude, followed by the title track ballad and I Wish It Would Rain, indicates that Hawthorne is aiming at the suite concept of 1970s group soul albums.
More particularly, on these numbers Hawthorne’s going for the ‘quiet storm’ soul pioneered by Smokey Robinson on his 1975 album; in fact, as the wonderful Make Her Mine shows by tipping its hat to The Tracks Of My Tears, Smokey is his dominant influence.
By contrast, the spirit of Curtis Mayfield is invoked on The Ills so well it sounds like a lost backing track; lyrically, though, tackling the social fallout of Hurricane Katrina with a rhyming dictionary is naïve at best. Candyfloss lyrics are fine on the superb Motorcity drama of One Track Mind or the oldies radio gold of Let Me Know, but the message has to fit the medium.
A Strange Arrangement is by turns inspiring and dispiriting; it contains some of the year’s best new music and, in comparison, some disappointing ballads. Given the quality of this debut album's high points, Hawthorne could make a jaw-dropping set next time; perhaps if he steps out of Smokey’s shadow and avoids the ballads, he’ll ensure his own spot in the Hall of Fame.