August 28, 2013
Record Reactions: John Mayer – Paradise Valley
Welcome to Record Reactions, where I share my thoughts on a new release from the worlds of popular and independent music. Today’s record is Paradise Valley, the new one from guitarist and pop-turned-blues-turned-country artist John Mayer.
By now you probably already know the story. John Mayer reached the mountaintop, but couldn’t help but sully his image with a few choice PR incidents. In a spell of sick poetic justice, he was silenced, with a rare and serious vocal chord issue. He shipped off to Montana to heal and gather his mind. And he returned literally a new man, with a renewed perspective and even a change in style; he was now an acoustic guitar strumming country boy. Now, for the second album in a row, those unique pop sensibilities, and that impossible talent on the guitar, have been filtered through a folk lens. And the results, surprisingly, are still just as enjoyable, and even more personal, refreshing, and charming.
Mayer is at his best when his superior talent can meld with a particularly inspired stretch of songwriting. Continuum was overflowing with these moments, and Paradise Valley is teeming with them as well, albeit in different ways. On standouts like Paper Doll, he hits the mix right on the nose. “You’re like 22 girls in one…and none of them know who they’re running from,” he sings in a diminishing melody. That melody sticks in your head, for sure, but it also drives the lyric through sharply. That lyric might just be another heart-on-sleeve singer-songwriter line, but nonetheless it carries a weight and a purpose.
Mayer’s on-and-off girlfriend Katy Perry makes a delightful appearance on the song Who You Love; the two balladeers trade verses and harmonies, and playfully ebb and flow with each other. The result is a beautiful and enjoyable piece of music, and you could tell they loved the experience of creating it.
Mayer’s writing here offers an interesting perspective – normally country and folk is about being just a normal guy, one of the boys. But John Mayer isn’t that. So when you hear lyrics like “now I wonder what you think when you see me in a magazine,” it doesn’t sound pompous or cocky. It’s just the experience that he has to draw upon.
What’s more, Mayer maintains his brilliant ear for a tune. The guitars do whatever they please, forming melodies, and playfully expounding with solos. His voice, though perhaps more guarded, is once again in top shape. Mayer hasn’t lost his knack for a good hook either: the album is overflowing with insistent earworms – I Will Be Found (Lost At Sea) is the best example of this. The guitar solo on Waitin’ on the Day is plainly brilliant, amidst a chorus of strummed acoustics and country vibes, the distorted and shredding guitar is jarring but also beautifully cohesive. It’s the epitome of John Mayer’s mixed bag of musical influences.
Of course, there are some weak points. A faster tune like Call Me The Breeze is fun, but it interrupts the flow of the tracks. I’m also torn on simpler lyrical choices like “some times I think it’s all okay/sometimes I throw it all away.” It’s wholesome and heart-on-sleeve, but could it also be lazy songwriting in search of a rhyming phrase?
But these are nitpicks. In reality, Paradise Valley is a single complete thought. While it might not be the thought you expected, or the one you wanted John Mayer to bring to life, one has to respect that he was as dedicated to this new idea as he was. It leads you to believe that maybe there is something there.
The album is expertly mixed – drums have a perfect little muted punch to them, guitars cascade in the perfect sound space – everything sounds heavenly over a pair of headphones. Now free of all of the issues that have haunted Mayer throughout his career, the man has finally found peace. On every song, he sounds relaxed, open. The whole album really has this vibe. Nothing clatters or clangs. This is a safe, disarming atmosphere, where soft, easy music abounds. And this atmosphere is one I would love to spend a good long time in.
Favorite Tracks: Wildfire, Paper Doll, Who You Love, I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea)
Least Favorite Track: Call Me The Breeze
Remember these reviews are just my opinion, and that little number up there doesn’t mean much! Have you heard this album? What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with me? If you would like to let me know your opinion, you can hit me up on my email, or tweet at me @RobinCopple1. I am dying to know what you think! Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the flipside! Stay tuned.
Image Credit: Columbia / Sony Music