What to Do Tonight: Jack Johnson

Taking the nice-guy thing to new, and possibly annoying, levels.
  • Taking the nice-guy thing to new, and possibly annoying, levels.

The ocean has been the setting for every record Jack Johnson has made. For the past ten years he’s been the bard of beachside pop — you can practically hear the sea splashing in the background as he plays his Jimmy Buffett-meets-James Taylor folk-rock.

But the water is also a personal place for the surfer, filmmaker, and singer-songwriter. It’s where Johnson goes to talk to his father, who passed away last summer after a long battle with cancer. “Only the Ocean” — the last song on his latest album, To the Sea — pays tribute to the man. “That’s one for whenever I go surfing or enter the ocean,” he says. “I feel the presence of my dad. It’s the place I go to visit him.”

The new record and this summer’s tour in support of it are a celebration of fathers, sons, and families. The CD cover features an old photo of dad Jeff building a wooden sculpture of a curling wave on the mudflats of Berkeley, California — right before the 21-year-old sailed to Hawaii, where he started his family on the north shore of Oahu. The title track tells of a smaller journey, but it’s just as important: It’s about a father and his kid going to the edge of the ocean and deciding whether to jump in and swim beneath the surface. It’s a metaphor for discovering each other, “Me looking at my dad, and me looking at my own sons,” says Johnson.

“This album is a lot about myths,” he continues. “I’ve been reading [about] different archetypes — the wild man and the broken king. I saw a lot of my father in a lot of these stories and our family’s history. I have this myth of my dad sailing across the ocean when he was 21, and I felt like that’s the guy I have to live up to be. It felt like having these mythological proportions that I was supposed to achieve.”

It’s heady stuff from a guy most music fans consider a laidback guitar strummer who surfs and sings about “Wasting Time,” “Banana Pancakes,” and “Bubble Toes.” But the music on To the Sea is fairly carefree and steers clear of any real heavy thinking. “The Upsetter” and “From the Clouds” are two of Johnson’s best and simplest soft rock, tossing guitars, piano, harmonica, and drums into a late-night beachside barbeque. “Turn Your Love” and “Anything but the Truth” are intimate guitar-and-bard cuts where warm acoustic chords slide beneath Johnson’s soft vocal whispers. And “You and Your Heart” and “My Little Girl” are sentimental offerings geared toward families — the sort of tunes fans always seem to eat up.

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