At an age when most of his peers are striving to recapture a youthful swagger, John Mayer’s applying for early admission to the nursing home. With Paradise Valley, Mayer’s still holed up in his mental log cabin, but he’s closer to that total broski-zen he’s been trying to achieve.
Mayer’s sixth album and second foray into the woods, sonically and spiritually, is the same as his first – 2012’s Born & Raised. It’s twangy and unconcerned, equal parts Neil Young, Grateful Dead and Jimmy Buffet, but more often closer in effect to the latter.
Lyrically, Mayer’s still gloriously obsessed with middle age. It’s endearing and novel angle, an understandable and humanizing character flaw to his grandiose personality. But, it’s tough to tell how to take it sometimes.
The result is a mix of sentiment. At points, it’s the musical incarnation of one of my favorite Onion headlines “24-Year-Old Receives Sage Counsel From Venerable 27-Year-Old” (“Waitin’ On The Day“, “You’re No One Til’ Someone Lets Your Down“). Other times, he’s more mellow and resigned, babbling his own pseudo-logical life lessons in an a way that passes for meaningful (“Dear Marie“, “Badge and Gun“).
The album pops when it hits its central themes – restraint and resignation, but the issue is it doesn’t always feel purposeful. This is a photograph of the current John Mayer more than an artist painting a deft picture.
The thing is Mayer always takes an interesting picture.
In retrospect, I don’t think anyone really understood how great Continuum was at the time. What we thought was a stepping stone in a rising career increasingly looks like the cornerstone to the arch. I mention this because three albums later, all John Mayer albums are still judged by this high-water mark, and Paradise Valley is no exception.
With his back-down-south style shift, Mayer’s been hard at work turning his racist-dick meltdown into a Bob Dylan-style motorcycle crash reformation. Even so, we’re still stuck soundly in the “self-portrait phase.”
Continuum was a true pop master stroke, a dogged blues disc dressed up in FM-ready song structures. Take “Belief,” at the time it was recognized as a soft rebellion, one that would morph into something greater, if Mayer only embraced a rock edge. But, holy damn, listen to the lyrics now. (“What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand / Belief can”). Today, revisiting “Belief,” it cuts hard. I think we were all just burnt out on American Idiot at the time.
The point is Mayer is best when working with restraint. You can hear the restraint on “Belief” in that whip-tight guitar line, in his piercingly perfect and fleeting “oohs.” If songs were fistfights, Mayer’s always the one beating his chest, the one spouting “good thing he’s holdin’ me back, bro.”
It’s stance that’s only threatening when he’s truly lashing, warning to really break away, like on “Paper Doll,” his anti-Taylor Swift breakup track. If the rest of Paradise Valley is lazy or uninterested, “Paper Doll” feels stuffed to capacity. It’s a reminder of his prowess as a songwriter, and how he can eviscerate a topic when he wants to.
Still, it’s hard to view this album as a success. Four years removed from the spotlight, Mayer can still get the world’s biggest R&B singer (Frank Ocean on “Wildfire”) and pop singer (Katy Perry on “Who You Love”) to guest on his album. But, to watch him squander his creativity on a track he doesn’t sing on and a boring pseudo-American song?
It’s sort of like watching Michael Jordan play baseball, where we knew somewhere deep down he knew he was full of shit. I think Mayer knows it, too.
Pete Rizzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.