Even if John Mayer’s touring and promotion plans for last year’s Born And Raised had not been curtailed by the singer/guitarist’s throat issues, that particular album resented a shift in Mayer’s personal and musical direction. It was quieter, more reflective. After a couple of years of having a public bullseye on him, it appeared that Mayer had made his peace with that mess and was headed in another direction.
Mayer’s lyrics have historically been fraught with angst, but Raised was more reflective than his previous albums had been. Laced with music that had a strong whiff of Seventies California rock (i.e. Jackson Browne, CSN, Eagles,) it was a mature and mellow statement that won back a ton of friends who’d departed after 2009’s mediocre Battle Studies-myself included.
Barely a year later, John is back with Paradise Valley. It would be very easy to see this album as a sequel to its predecessor. Musically, Mayer walks a very similar path. There’s not much on Paradise Valley that will make it to Top 40 radio (and Mayer has indicated that’s totally fine with him.) It’s slightly more twangy musically (and John indulges in more overt guitar heroics,) but the two albums have much in common. More impressively, his rootsy turn doesn’t sound put on. More cynical minds will view Paradise Valley as a continuing effort to court the Mumford & Sons/Lumineers audience, but there’s a sincerity on this album that’s too present to mistake for simple commercialism. After his vocal travails, John appears to be moving ever forward to that elusive peaceful place that he’s been searching for since Room For Squares announced his entrance back in 2001.
Might Katy Perry, of all people, have something to do with this change in attitude? Shade aside, the relationship between the two singers does seem to contribute to a somewhat more rose-tinted view emanating from John’s pen these days. Their duet “Who You Love” seems to answer the critics who say that the notorious skirt-chaser and the pop party girl are a bad match. Surprisingly, given my semi-ambivalence towards Katy Perry, it’s also one of the best songs on the album.
For quality, though, it’ll be hard to top Paradise Valley‘s opener, “Wildfire.” A good-time hand-clappy blues/folk jam, this song begs to be sung drunkenly at a late-summer campfire (maybe wishful thinking on my part?) It’ll automatically put a grin on your face, and might swipe the title of best opening track on a Mayer album from my beloved “Clarity” (the first track on 2003’s excellent Heavier Things.)
A lot of folks are probably wondering how the granuloma that temporarily silenced Mayer last year has affected his voice. Well, it’s definitely robbed him of his power-John can’t belt. “Waiting On The World To Change” will likely no longer be remade. He can still hit falsetto notes, however (the wordless cooing that runs throughout “Badge And Gun” is evidence of that,) and in some cases, a more laconic delivery suits him (like on the T-Swizzle-baiting first single “Paper Doll.”) Paradise Valley is-by and large- a quiet album that requires a more relaxed tone of voice. Mayer’s definitely up to the challenge.
Like most John Mayer albums, Paradise Valley will be a grower. You have to take some time to let the lyrics sink in, and that might be a little more difficult than usual because the hooks aren’t so obvious and immediate. That said, after a handful of listens, it’s already an indication that Born And Raised wasn’t just a temporary “comeback.” John might be trafficking less in the urbane singer/songwriter realm than he was for his first four or so albums, but Paradise Valley confirms that he can pretty much do whatever the hell he wants to do, and it’ll be solid.