10 Years On: Jack Johnson's 'In Between Dreams'

Written By Sam Murphy on 03/04/2015

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If you were around the age of 10 to 15 when Jack Johnson’s In Between Dreams came out chances are you will be able to go out to your Dad’s car right now and it will be sitting in the six-CD stacker right now. It was that album that defined a generation of inoffensive Dads and in turn also influenced a bunch of grommets sitting in the back-seat.

Let’s be totally honest with each other before we go on. Jack Johnson is the audible equivalent of a soggy biscuit but at 13 years-old, In Between Dreams was the tastiest soggy biscuit I’ve ever eaten.

Nowadays Jack Johnson is the most uneventful musician on planet earth (now Mumford & Sons have gone electric), but this was 2005. This was before Angus and Julia Stone, before Vance Joy and even before Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. Yes, boredom was not even invented and that meant that Jack Johnson’s unharmful collection of songs sung with an acoustic guitar was music to the ears of plenty of people around the world. How many? Well, the album went to number one in Australia and the UK and number two in the US where it has now sold in excess of 2 million copies. The album, his third, was and still is his most successful album and below I’m going to try and make sense of it all.

In 2005, In Between Dreams garnered a total critics' score of 58 (thanks Metacritic), meaning it was, well, not very good. The New York Times wrote the album’s songs are “so light and self-effacing they might scatter in a tropical breeze,” while Drowned In Sound called it “one dimensional and unadventurous.” Not exactly glowing reviews but his peers, Donavon Frankenreiter, Jason Mraz and Matt Costa were also not appeasing critics. For such inoffensive music, In Between Dreams seemingly offended quite a few people for being so forgettable.

In the past I’ve written reflective pieces on albums ten years on and talked about the musical climate at the time and how the lyrics reflected a generation but it hardly seems relevant with In Between Dreams. It was written by a musician who was seemingly disconnected from the entire world and yet was writing vaguely about its various problems. “Where'd all the good people go? I've been changing channels I don't see them on the TV shows,” he sings on Good People (clearly Keeping Up The Kardashians had not yet started). In Breakdown, Johnson criticises “All the people in the street” who “Walk as fast as their feet can take them” while he just rolls through town. To most people that’s known as the difference between having a job and having a day off.

You can say that In Between Dreams is too safe, but I will challenge you on that. On Belle he sings in French (“Je ne comprends pas français,” he trills) and on Banana Pancakes he alludes to sexual activity (“like a ukulele. Momma made a baby. Really don't mind the practice 'cause you're my little lady”). Oh la la. On Never Knowing he also condemns the human race for trying to kill the metaphor which is a poignant community service announcement which has been ignored in years past.

Just like a rapper speaking of popping gold bottles of champagne in a club, Johnson leads a life on In Between Dreams that everybody would like to. He sleeps in too late, he fixes problems by stapling it together and calling it “bad weather” and love is the answer to every question he has in his heart. As a kid growing up, discovering death and finding out that people can be really, really shit, it was somewhat comforting to have an album that simplified every issue and made you feel safe. It’s somewhat fitting that he followed up this album with the soundtrack to kids movie Curious George.

People will complain that M.I.A’s Arular never had the same success in March of 2005 but kids and parents alike would not have sat there in silence devouring the harsh political messages of Arular. The relationship between the West and developing nations is far less pleasant than Banana Pancakes. Music that appeases middle-class families has always sold better than everything else regardless of how profound it is. I believe Ed Sheeran’s X currently plays from the iPod of every Volvo in Sydney.

Unfortunately as you get older you realise the world isn’t quite as pleasant as Johnson would’ve had you believe. Still, nostalgia is the strongest of all emotions and most people who grew through their teens with In Between Dreams will have a soft spot for it. If there’s one thing that works on this album, it’s simplicity. The time-signatures are always the same, his vocal tone never wavers and every track is bound by a delectable melody. Every kid who learnt acoustic guitar between 2005 and 2010 learnt Jack Johnson and there’s got to be some merit in that. The first single Sitting, Waiting, Wishing has as good a melody as Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe which is impressive for an acoustic surf-track.

If I found a willing participant, Better Together would be my wedding song because you’re exempt from judgement on your wedding day and also it’s effortlessly sweet and nostalgic and I really don’t want Unchained Melody. Oh, please don’t make me have Unchained Melody.

Ten years on, In Between Dreams is a record that still makes people smile. And whether it be for the right or wrong reasons, the fact that it’s still being played at least means that it lasted some sort of distance. There’s something charming about Johnson’s blissful ignorance, it sends you into a daydream.

On the other hand, if you didn’t listen to this album as a child, don’t try now. Nostalgia is its biggest strength and lines like “you can either sink or swim/Things are looking pretty grim,” might make you ill.

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