At the moment, Jack Johnson is the dumbest genius in pop. On his impossibly mellow records, which he told the Associated Press last month he tries to make “secondary to life,” the Hawaii-born surfer whittles the singer-songwriter’s craft down to such an aesthetic baseline that you can’t imagine anyone being offended by his sound. Throughout In Between Dreams, his third proper album, Johnson asks big questions about life—”Why are we here? And where do we go? And how come it’s so hard?” he wonders in “Better Together”—over balmy acoustic-guitar strums that supply the comfort that line of inquiry tends to deplete.
His approach is the opposite of that adopted by other easygoing warm-weather radio titans, such as Sugar Ray or the Black Eyed Peas (who redo Johnson’s “Gone” on their new Monkey Business). Where those studio maximalists stuff their tracks with traces of everything under the sun in order to catch as many distracted ears as possible, Johnson clears away the clutter, figuring that by scaling back he can be one thing to all people. That the platinum-selling Dreams is still charting six months after its release suggests that his wild idea holds quite a bit of saltwater.
Jack Johnson plays Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield September 12 and 13.