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First Listen: Mayer Hawthorne, 'Where Does This Door Go'

Mayer Hawthorne's new album, <em>Where Does This Door Go</em>, comes out July 16.
Jeremy Deputat
/
Courtesy of the artist
Mayer Hawthorne's new album, Where Does This Door Go, comes out July 16.

In the course of three studio albums, Michigan-bred soul singer Mayer Hawthorne has refined his gift for songs that emulate and update his home state's Motown sound. As he's picked up major-label backing — as well as guest assists on the new Where Does This Door Go from the ubiquitous likes of Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams — Hawthorne has transformed himself from underground indie-soul curiosity to imminent star.

He's done so, in part, by sticking to a largely innocent persona: Though little bursts of profanity and transgression poke through now and then on Where Does This Door Go (out July 16), Hawthorne most frequently plays the role of reluctant Lothario; he's a romantic bystander, victim or dupe rather than a predator. In "Back Seat Lover," he seems to lament being pulled into a tawdry secret fling — only to conclude, "Well, let's get it on, then." In the slickly catchy "The Innocent," the woman in the scene he sets is cast as a bloodthirsty conqueror; the song itself calls to mind Hall & Oates' "Maneater" in more ways than one.

Hawthorne's similarities to Hall & Oates don't end there: Though they lean on (and add to) different regional soul traditions, and Hall's is a more commanding voice, both artists find an appealing and accessible midpoint between classic soul and contemporary pop — and never feel like tourists in either setting. Hawthorne has long been a student of the music that precedes him, with skills as a composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist that take him well beyond mimicry. (Comparisons to the smooth proficiency of Steely Dan are well-placed.) Along the way, Hawthorne has carved out a contemporary niche for himself as a musician with a gift for fusing past and present sounds in ways that render them indistinguishable from each other.

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Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)