Jack Johnson's sun-kissed acoustic-guitar melodies, stoner-dude tenor and unfailingly positive vibrations are like a fresh piña colada with a paper umbrella: You've experienced this before, it's a little corny, but it's pretty much impossible to hate. His defining moment could be his excellent cover of the White Stripes' "We're Going to Be Friends" on his kid-flick soundtrack Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies, from the movie Curious George — he defused the sexual tension and edge of the original version, but in its place was a boatload of playground-mack charm, which made everything OK. (The positive vibes have been matched in his personal life: He's a quiet activist who records albums in solar-powered studios and often gives his touring profits to charity.)
The challenge for the Hawaiian soft-rocker has been making grown-up music, for life when you get home from the beach. He took his first crack on 2008's Sleep Through the Static, but the themes of war, fear, hatred and sorrow felt incongruous and unconvincing. On To the Sea, the 35-year-old surfer and filmmaker is still staring down adult fears. But this time he has made an existential chill-out record that feels substantial, at times even edgy, without feeling forced.
"You and Your Heart" opens the set with a funky, strummy acoustic-guitar riff, adding pieces one by one: a guitar line that's more jagged and electric than what we expect from Johnson; a lightly propulsive drum groove; some midrange piano punctuation; and then Johnson, singing to a hater he hopes to convert to a lover. On "No Good With Faces," singing over a forlorn melodica, he seems at the brink of despondency, "lost" and "too tired to try," yet he pulls himself out on the chorus. Both manage a new emotional depth for Johnson, but are as singalongy as his Curious George jams. Ditto "At or With Me," which relieves a bout of paranoia with a gnarly eight-bar guitar solo and periodic exclamations of "Ah, baby, those are such great shoes!"
"From the Clouds," the set's standout, may be the quintessential Jack Johnson song. Dry electric-guitar chords circle a loose drum pattern; then a bass line and staccato piano come in old-school Jamaican rock-steady style, and Johnson beckons some "pretty thing" to join him up in the stratosphere, where they can safely watch a fucked-up world, cultivating their love, playing "double solitaire." The groove is delicious; if Johnson ever poached Trey Anastasio, he'd have the most tuneful jam band on the planet.
Sometimes you wish something would rock Johnson's endless Margaritaville vibe. But the easy-rolling pleasures are tough to deny. There's a moment on To the Sea, at the opening of "The Upsetter," where the funky guitar and hand-drumming suggest a cover of "Sympathy for the Devil," which would be pretty awesome. But instead it shifts into a bouncy island-flavored groove and shimmies off, not toward hell but into an island sunset and a chorus centered on the line "Stop upsetting yourself." And sometimes, that is not bad advice at all.