Since Drew Cohen changed his name to Mayer Hawthorne and started recording non-ironic, nostalgic soul records, it has seemed like he’s only one ad placement from being the male answer to Adele. In a near future, it’s easy to imagine Hawthorne’s inoffensive rendering of ‘70s soul as the soundtrack to our trips to Gap, Burger King, or the Apple store. And while I don’t (completely) mean that as a pejorative, it’s true: Hawthorne’s music is comforting and totally familiar, with just enough “new” to make it seem different than those albums where Michael McDonald covered Motown singles.
Which is why it was easy to tell Hawthorne was not long for Stones Throw, the label that coaxed him into recording this kind of music for a full-length in the first place. 2009’s Strange Arrangement predicted that Hawthorne was going to land at a major, assuming that the right A&R person heard him, and his music would be buffed of its rough edges, and Hawthorne’s voice would be more confident. Universal Republic is the label, and How Do You Do is the label that delivers all those things. This is Mayer Hawthorne, 100 percent ready for public consumption, confidence upped and music packaged perfectly. A Strange Arrangement will always have its indie adherents, but for my money, this is the album that Hawthorne has been poised for since the jump: It’s a brief, delightful little thing, with a handful of knockout singles.
When Hawthorne is on, his music is more consistently thrilling than other backwards-looking soul crooners like Jamie Lidell. Lead single, and far away his best track yet, “A Long Time,” is impossibly catchy, and hard to shake from your frontal lobe, thanks to its smile-faced Soul Train dance beats. What’s remarkable is that it’s arguably the corniest song on the record, because it’s a song about Detroit history and how things will get better, probably. It’s basically an ad for Detroit, and it is still somehow the best.
When Hawthorne replicates the grinning and winning of “A Long Time” elsewhere on the record, How Do You Do is a triumph. “The Walk,” with its chorus line of, “Walk your long legs right out of my life,” and its bleary horns, is the next best thing to “A Long Time,” while “Can’t Stop” overcomes a singing Snoop Dogg (seriously) to be one of the funnest songs on the record. The Hall & Oates charm of “Finally Falling” and “No Strings” make the strongest case for the continued relevance of Oates’ facial follicles since Chromeo’s Fancy Footwork (Chromeo and Mayer are touring together, coincidentally).
But like A Strange Arrangement, How Do You Do can get pretty dire away from the obvious singles. “Dreaming” and “The News” will have you rethinking the idea that ELO is underrated and deserve a reappraisal, while “You’re Not Ready” is wedding balladry, plain and simple. Hate to return to the commercialism of the opening paragraph, but in some ways, Mayer Hawthorne (and by extension, any artist openly strip-mining old music like this) is like a soul McDonald’s. He’s not going to give you the thrills or experimental conceits of finely roasted bone marrow: He’s going to give you the familiar experience of a burger and fries, cooked the same way for years.