The legend of Mayer Hawthorne tells of him recording the demos that became A Strange Arrangement as a bit of a joke. He was Andrew Cohen and DJ Haircut then, and he had neither done much singing before, nor intended to shop the demos around to labels at all. But the recordings nonetheless fell into the hands of Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of Stones Throw Records, who thought they were tracks from some great undiscovered 60s soul band and called Hawthorne in. When this white Ann Arbor kid walked into Wolf’s office, he was confused. So this is just some record you dug up? You have permission to reissue it, I guess? No, no, no—it’s all me. What do mean, it’s all you? It’s all me! You recorded it in your bedroom, played all the instruments, and sang all the parts, even that fragile falsetto? And at some point, Peanut Butter Wolf, incredulous, probably burst into a laughter deep and profound.
So Mayer Hawthorne’s founding myth involves a case of mistaken identity, one that could’ve gone unnoticed had he just set his demo free to fend for itself in the supersaturated music world. “Those are some smooth jams,” said a coworker the first time she overheard Hawthorne’s music oozing out of my speakers at work. Musically descended from the Motown sound, his arrangements are a worthy tribute to the best of doo-wop soul, where everything is always about love. Hawthorne’s grooves make you strut as you walk with your headphones on, and his delicate harmonies make you long for a romantic candlelit dinner, a fire crackling behind you, smoky and warm.
With yearning and naïveté in Hawthorne’s voice, and lyrics like “I’m through playin’ the fool for love,” his music is often described as “retro throwback.” It is much more than that, though, and the Dilla-esque aspects of his beats are often invoked as proof that his music is something new and exciting. But while they set him apart from Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson, this novelty, like his accurate replication of Motown soul, isn’t what makes it good—just surprising. The strength of A Strange Arrangement, once we get past both novelty and throwback, is not that it is old or new but that it is a solid pop record, a simple pleasure that is only deceptively simple, carefully crafted, and complex even if its initial draw is nostalgia for some bygone past. “It’s not a soul revival, it’s a good-songwriting revival,” Hawthorne told Rolling Stone.
Having listened to the album five hundred times through headphones, closed off from the outside world, I recently went to see Mayer live at the Mercury Lounge, and the following night at Brooklyn Bowl. It was strange, fantastical. Mayer’s bassist—part of the County, his backup tour band—had taken on the persona of Slash, wearing matching leopard-print sunglasses, cape, and guitar strap. The guitarist’s floppy hair was a late-90s revival of the Keanu Reeves dreamy-boy look. Here was a space-time vortex where all decades of music fashion existed at once. Mayer was impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit at the Mercury and a cardigan with bow tie at Brooklyn Bowl, having adopted the persona of the sharply buttoned, Hennessey-drinking soul man. “Do you feel the love, New York?” he asked the crowd, his voice booming through the mike.
Pistol fingers shot toward the ceiling when he ordered us to “put your Ls in the air!” and for “When I Said Goodbye,” he handed a long-stemmed rose to a woman up front, eyes locked on her as he sang, ever the smooth operator. “For the next part of the show, there are two parts,” he announced. “The first part is we play ‘Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’.’ And the second part is you guys are going to dance your motherfuckin’ asses off!”—and everyone did. Then when he introduced the band at the end, he made a show out of presenting the would-be Slash, stopping to drape the leopard-print cape over his shoulders with great dramatic effect.
Mayer was full of cheeky charm, the kind that comes from playing his persona well and knowing that we know that he knows that it’s just a persona, and little more. The album, polished and free of between-song banter, hardly betrays this at all, being an accomplished, serious soul record in itself, even if with hindsight you know he’s poking fun at the conventions of the genre as well. Onstage, he has fun and makes fun of the whole charade as he rolls along. But on the second night, he introduced “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’” and Slash in exactly the same ways as he had the night before, and something changed. My paranoid self suspected that the enthusiasm with which I threw my Ls into the air made me the dupe. If his lines were rehearsed and my actions were not, then was I sentimental, cheesy? Under the deluge of music critics now populating the world, this is the greatest fear of all.
But the fear quickly disappeared into Mayer’s infectious hooks and my bourbon haze. I danced and I sang along, just like everyone else. Because even if the legends we’ve heard, the cultural tropes and commentaries on why his music is new or old or good, still float in the air and inside our brains—who really cares? Analyzing and commenting and being self-consciously self-aware of everything going on—hasn’t this become a tired cliché as well? After all, I live in Brooklyn, home to Williamsburg.
Of course, the answer to “Who cares?” is “me,” and maybe you, but only before and after the show. Despite his persona, that deceptive simplicity Mayer achieves is one of his biggest draws, hearkening back to a time when 4/4 time wasn’t just for squares, and before everything was post-something-else. So we danced and threw our Ls in the air, not because we were playing along but just because. The Hennessey nightcap would come much later in the night, and when Mayer told us that he was also looking for love, I felt the love, and I did swoon.