The son of a surfer on the North Shore of Oahu, Jack Johnson seemed destined to chase waves. He got his board-walking legs at 5 and eventually became the youngest invitee to make the finals of a major surfing competition at the age of 17. But when an accident put 100-plus stitches in his forehead, Johnson found himself rethinking his longboard career. In its place, he reached for a guitar.
One thing led to another, and soon his demo made its way to producer J.P. Plunier, who helped shape his first album, 2001’s Brushfire Fairytales. The debut’s mellow surfer-dude groove won an audience that stretched beyond the surfing community and ended up going platinum (shipping 1 million units), launching Johnson on a wave of acoustic success he’s still riding today. To the Sea is his fifth studio album.
“From The Clouds” celebrates being with the right person (“I’m lucky to have you/ … You’re so sweet to me”). The laid-back “My Little Girl” expands that sentiment (“You’ve gone and stole my heart/And made it your own”). A third love song, “Turn Your Love,” relishes time spent together (“I don’t want you to go/ … Let’s not go to sleep tonight/It’s not that it goes too fast/It’s just that it goes at all”).
“You and Your Heart” encourages listeners to stop being harsh to others (“You cut people passing by/Because you know what you don’t like”) and disconnected from their own souls (“You and your heart/Shouldn’t feel so far apart”). The song ultimately focuses on erasing lines that divide people (“Better hope the tide/Will take our lines away”). “At or With Me” wonders, “Why can’t we just say what we mean?” and critiques empty talk and shallow materialism. “The Upsetter” counsels against letting life’s struggles consume us. “Pictures of People Taking Pictures” wonders if we spend too much time taking snapshots of life rather than living it. The environmentally aware “Anything But the Truth” challenges listeners to reckon with obvious changes in the natural world.
“Only the Ocean” relishes the calming influence of the surf “When this world is too much/It will be/Only the ocean and me.” “When I Look Up” is a poetic campfire lullaby that sings of a night walk in the moonlight.
On the title track, Johnson exhibits an uncharacteristic sense of despair. The song speaks of fleeing hunters and their dogs, as well as the death of dreams: “You better bring your buckets/We’ve got some dreams to drain/I’ll be at the bottom/ … Dreams to drain/Put them in a cage/Unlock the pain/And I’ll be here waiting.” A similar sense of desperation pervades “No Good With Faces” (“Street lamps are broken/Black the way I came/Who broke the moonlight?/ … I’m lost/I’m too tired to cry”).
“Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology” casually suggests shrugging off life’s conundrums with a glass of wine: “Let’s all laugh so we don’t cry/Let’s all lift our glasses up to the sky.”
Jack Johnson’s appeal has always been the lounge-around-the-campfire-with-guitar-and-uke-in-hand vibe he so effortlessly taps into. You can almost hear the lapping waves, smell the crackling firewood, feel the sand scrunching between your toes and taste the mango juice as his jams float along the breeze.
There’s plenty of Johnson’s typically carefree island attitude on offer here. But this time around, a few storm clouds on the horizon seem to be darkening his outlook. Even the islands, it seems, aren’t always an antidote to worldly anxiety.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.