On And On

Jack Johnson

Universal Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/02/2003

I am one of those occasionally-bitter skeptics who's actually a closet idealist. I want to believe; I just have to get my inner wise guy to shut up long enough to let me.

So when a guitar-toting surfer-dude like Jack Johnson happens onto the scene, I am torn by opposing influences; half of me wants to give props to the guy's stripped-down sound and campfire philosophizing, and the other half wants to smash his freaking guitar against a wall a la Animal House and keep walking.

(Aside to Jack: Not to worry, I leave the guitar-smashing to professionals.)

Funny thing, though. As prepared as I was to loathe this album for all sorts of reasons -- Johnson's musical origins as a competitive surfer who dabbles in songwriting, the determined earthiness of this album's packaging, his "cult" status among certain hipper-than-thou music fans -- I find myself grooving on it again and again. It's spare and simple and the lyrics veer between clever and too-precious, but overall my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 On And On is a very enjoyable way to spend 60 minutes.

One of the charms here is the fact that Johnson doesn't try to overreach. Yes, he tackles a reggae shuffle on "The Horizon Has Been Defeated," and brings more than a little hip-hop emceeing into his delivery of songs like "Taylor" and the title track. And truly, some of these songs are little more than fragments -- where's the rest of "Cupid," which consists of two spare verses closing out in just 1:06?

But Johnson knows his strengths and largely sticks to them. The core of this album is a series of clean, well-crafted tracks that focus entirely on his adroit acoustic guitar playing and the ever-earnest lyrics of tracks like the anti-industrial "Traffic In The Sky" and the anti-materialist "Gone." The trick is how Johnson manages to infuse these songs with a distinct political perspective without sacrificing melody or entertainment value. You nod and smile, it's all so organic and disarmingly sincere… and then you want some more.

Sometimes the rhymes dance right up to the edge of silliness -- "such a tough enchilada filled up with nada / giving what she gotta give to get a dollar bill" -- but Johnson's confident delivery manages to make even his most outlandish creations feel right somehow. He also conjures up a number of images -- mostly involving nature and the elements -- that are both insightful and striking. Example: "there were so many fewer questions / when stars were still just the holes to heaven."

While there were times listening to this album when I felt almost like the rube getting conned by the sweet-talking musician, I was ultimately seduced by it. It's simple, it's sweet, it's sincere, and damn if my closet idealist doesn't think it might just be the kind of thing this cold, cynical world needs more of.

Rating: B+

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© 2003 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Universal Records, and is used for informational purposes only.