But it’s the other songs—the ones about trying to find space to be anything but irate, exasperated, and exhausted—that make Moonlight so relevant and assuring. Nestled between a simple slack-key jangle and slide guitar sighs, his voice during “Calm Down” feels like a deep-breathing exercise. He asks someone he loves to sit beside him for a spell, so they can slip away from wailing sirens and our collective quest to find out “how low until the bottom.” And the title track extends an open invitation to find hope and wonder in an act as simple as walking outside, looking up, and spotting the moon. Johnson often crams lots of words into three-minute spaces, but here he luxuriates inside scenes for five minutes, as if he’s learned enough to shut up and be still. “It’s good to be right here,” he coos, the bloom of his voice betraying a sense of genuine surprise. This epiphany is the core of possibly the prettiest song of his career.
Johnson is a 47-year-old father married to his college sweetheart who has now made enough of a fortune to make two nonprofit businesses devoted to giving it away. But little about Moonlight scans either as a self-righteous sermon or a fireside lament about how bad he has it. Instead, Johnson is only wrestling with what he sees around him, trying to facilitate empathy in a society where just that can mean working overtime. He nails that conundrum on the masterful “I Tend to Digress,” a relatable snapshot of a mind spinning around a hamster wheel. In the first 100 seconds, he sorts through a litany of big questions: Is there a god, and, if so, does it care about us or how we feel about it? Why do we cripple ourselves through comparison? And are we ever more than people’s perceptions of us? “I want meaning/I want reason/It’s not enough to have a pleasing morning,” he sings to start the final verse before pulling back and admitting that such simple joys, no matter how brief or pedestrian, may indeed be the point.
Blake Mills produced Moonlight in Los Angeles and Hawaii, working with Johnson at his home studio. It may seem surprising that a guy typecast as a beach strummer now joins a string of Mills collaborators that also includes Bob Dylan, Perfume Genius, and Fiona Apple. But lean in closely, and you can hear Mills’ subtle flourishes—the lambent drone beneath “Open Mind,” for instance, or the spectral percussion underneath “Windblown Eyes.” Mostly he fosters a newfound restraint in Johnson, so that the lines rarely get goofy and the arrangements never try too hard. Really, Meet the Moonlight sounds a little like a backyard picnic in lockdown, as simple as a friend coming over when the weather’s warm to play some songs about the day’s sadness and distant hope. If, for 20 years, Johnson’s seemed like the guy insisting “Life Is Good,” this setting makes it clear that his message is both shorter and more complicated: Life … Is?
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