My first encounter with Jack Johnson took place when I was a senior in high school. I was going through my “indier than thou” phase at the time — proud that I had become a Hives fan before they were on the radio, knowing I was probably the only kid in school who listened to early PJ Harvey on my morning drives. When “Flake” became a mainstream radio hit, I dismissed it each time I heard it, with the excuse that if Rick Dees liked it, I couldn’t touch it.
But at some point that year, I gave in and bought Brushfire Fairytales, and I fell in love. Jack Johnson, his songs unique enough to comprise an album of piano ballads, acoustic melodies and a token Latin touch, sang with a near whisper and appeared to know only 2/2 time. But he was perfect — the singer-songwriter who may be able to please anybody of any age or gender, mellow enough for summery California days yet playful enough to cheer up even the most depressed Seattle residents.
On his third official album in the last four years, Johnson has expanded on the lower-maintenance approach he took with 2003’s On and On, advancing the layering and musical complexity of the songs on In Between Dreams. He’s taken his peaceful minimalist sound and picked it up a touch, though his lyrics, which mostly revolve around love and contentment, remain straightforward: “Love is the answer/ At least for most of the questions in my heart” on “Better Together” or, during the rare hopeless romantic bout, “I’m just a fool/ Learning loving somebody don’t make them love you” on “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing.”
So, what is it about Jack Johnson that makes him more acceptable than singer-songwriters in the same market, like John Mayer or Jason Mraz? (And yes, I laughed aloud after writing that question.) He may be selling to the same diverse yet marketable audience, the one that relies on the most mainstream of radio stations for music and doesn’t like the “screamy bands.” But regardless of where his fame and status stand, he’s honest and unpretentious. And he’s the type of guy women would love to be serenaded by. After nearly a half-decade of records, Johnson still hasn’t learned anything about time signatures or experimentation, but at least he knows what he does best and sticks to it.