Jack Johnson is about as guilty as pleasures can get once you reach a certain stage in life - you know, that point where you basically don’t care what anyone else thinks about you anymore. He’s the sort of artist whose albums you might not display proudly on a shelf, but hold an inescapable place in the heart. You may not want to go about listing them in your favourite records of all time on a Tinder date, but you clearly don’t carry enough shame over them to prevent you from publicly disclosing your love for choice cuts from his back catalogue on the internet. Ahem.
twenty-five-million-albums-and-counting-sold later, the former professional surfer turned eco-warrior has repeatedly sailed very close to the wind of becoming a parody of himself over the years. The son of legendary surfer Jeff Johnson, he’s enjoyed the smug satisfaction of a privileged upbringing that’s allowed him to live out the beach life fantasy, as well as waxing lyrical about preserving said way of life. A healthy appreciation of environmentalism and conservation is nothing to be sniffed at, but Johnson is often held up as the Gap Yah pariah by his detractors, and it’s easy to understand why.
All that being said, there’s no denying the man can write a cracking pop song when he’s on form – too insipid and saccharine for some, no doubt – but for those of us who couldn’t really give a shiny penny about our credibility, his back catalogue speaks for itself. Early studio length offerings Brushfire Fairlytales and In Between Dreams were jammed so full of weapons grade hit singles that at one point it felt as though his streak would never end, but it seems old Jack’s hit machine might just have run out of steam after all. All The Light Above It Too is very generously listed as a rock record. It’s very definitely not a rock record, but it is Johnson’s seventh studio album, and, notably, the first on which he’s played almost every instrument, returning to his regular haunt of Mango Tree Studio in Hawaii. It’s also just incredibly disappointingly dull - a scattershot and disjointed effort that invitingly holds up a platter of promising songs which ultimately disappoint in their forgettable mediocrity. If there are still people out there who doubt that record labels front-load mediocre albums, look no further for the proof.
Opening track ‘Subplots’ is probably the most similar to his back catalogue but also seemingly drags more mature influences from the likes of M Ward and Conor Oberst. Unfortunately, it mainly serves as a reminder that here is a songwriter who is capable of so much more than the rest of this album eventually serves up. ‘Sunsets For Somebody Else’ is an up-cycled, grown up take on his ‘Banana Pancakes’ riff finding Johnson in a slightly more brooding, contemplative frame of mind, and is one of the only other real stand outs on the record.
Johnson has always been at his best when writing love songs, and his newfound socio-political and socially responsible material seems, for the most part, lacklustre and trite in comparison. That being said, ‘Love Song #16’ is a stock, by-numbers offering almost by its own admission, and is stuffed with clumsy phrasing. It would have been better left in the pro-tools session recycle bin and feels empty in both sentiment and compositional thought.
As a full album, this wafts innocuously past like a gentle Hawaiian breeze – too meek for any real surf, but just strong enough to be mildly of note to those wishing to hit the waves. That’s about the best that can be said of it, and it’s also the first and last time you’ll find a clumsy surfing analogy in one of my reviews, but it’s about the most I could summon for this one, and I say that as fan.