Offering little more than a charming melody and the occasionally-pretty lick, “Dear Marie” trudges along until its concluding sentiment: “I got my dream, but you got family…I got that dream, but I guess it got away from me.”
Impressed by that earth-shattering piece of lyrical innovation? John Mayer sure is, because upon singing it, the artist makes it abundantly clear why he composed “Dear Marie”–and why the lifeless balance of the song felt so shoehorned into the record. The track, like so many on Mayer’s new album “Paradise Valley,” exists to spotlight a microscopic concept or objective rather than a sincere glimpse into the singer-songwriter’s emotions.
The track, like so many on Mayer’s new album “Paradise Valley,” manages to juxtapose an abundance of technical talent and melodic sensibility with a conspicuous dearth of honesty.
That Mayer’s new album falls victim to such a troubling dichotomy is not surprising. After all, such criticism is no more relevant than it is when discussing the album’s lead single “Paper Doll,” which made waves earlier this year. A thinly-veiled shot at Taylor Swift, who berated former fling Mayer on “Dear John” (and perhaps on her later, less transparent smash “I Knew You Were Trouble”), the flat, lifeless “Doll” never lives up the resonance of its central lyrical hook (“you’re like twenty two girls in one, and none of them know what they’re runnin’ from”).
No matter how sincerely such conceptual centerpieces echo the thoughts swirling in Mayer’s mind, body and soul, they are not independently capable of communicating Mayer’s emotion to the listener. Honesty comes not from a climax but from a totality of moments, and with so many of those individual moments crafted inorganically for the purpose of achieving calculated objectives, “Paradise Valley” ignores everything that made Mayer’s meaningful releases like “Continuum” and even 2012′s quickly–but sadly–forgotten “Born and Raised” so special.
With that album, Mayer not only embraced the musical delight of a folk/country-rock sound but the mentality behind it. Standout “BnR” tracks like “Queen of California” and “Something Like Olivia” succeed not because they are endlessly-articulated, technically-perfect masterpieces but because of their spirit and instant ability to relay Mayer’s state of mind (however gauche a love letter to Olivia Wilde might be in theory).
Mayer stays within the broad confines of that genre for “Paradise Valley,” but instead of letting music organically flow from his submersion in the appropriate state of mind, he falls victim to a proclivity for deliberation. Instead of playing the role of creator, he plays that of editor, working more to perfect ideas than to convey the unfiltered connection between his heart, voice and guitar.
He knows he was onto something with the “Born and Raised” approach, and “Paradise Valley” unfortunately represents his detached desire to do it better rather than “realer.” In pursuing that desire, Mayer forgets that in his line of work, realness is the more essential ingredient for excellence.
Tracks like “Dear Marie” and “Paper Doll” epitomize that failure. The musical effort is unequivocally there, but the significance is unequivocally not. No matter how great their instrumental lines sound, the tracks never make a case for why they need to exist.
Such triviality, nearly always evident and often painstakingly so, plagues “Paradise Valley” from start-to-finish.
With “You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down,” Mayer forays into retro country for seemingly no other reason than to prove he can do so. Whether he sufficiently makes that case is up for debate–his guitar and melody are authentic enough, but his stiff vocal delivery feels notably out of place–but even if he did, is that really a meaningful goal? Pursuing mastery of a new genre is fine if it connects to the root of the song and aids in the storytelling, but when it serves to overshadow the message rather than to amplify it, it is ill-advised. It ends up coming off as a cheap, gimmicky attempt to be different.
If closing tracks “Badge and Gun” and “On the Way Home” communicate a retro sound with more grace, they do so with even less significance. Both are perfectly fine, perfectly enjoyable, perfectly pleasant little songs, but they are also completely hollow. They don’t mean anything. They don’t say anything. They don’t build anything. They just occupy slots on an album.
Worse is when deafness seems to get in the way of Mayer’s tone. Frank Ocean guests on a haunting musical interlude, one apparently representing a reprise of intro track “Wildfire,” that is as jarringly out of place as it is vocally beautiful. Ocean performs his job flawlessly, but was such a job warranted or even helpful?
If you assumed, based on the state of today’s social climate, that a song entitled “Who You Love” would serve as an explicit defense of gay marriage, you would be wrong. But while Mayer avoids that predictable path and opts not to package the song as “Same Love Part II,” his actual choice strips the song of any importance.
By performing the song with girlfriend Katy Perry, Mayer turns the song into an explicit defense of his own romantic relationship. The problem, of course, is that a relationship between two popular, good-looking celebrities is the antithesis of taboo. It does not need the protection of a song like “Who You Love.”
And even if it did, the album’s version of “Who You Love” is not the right song for the job.
While her effort cannot be ignored, Perry spends the duration of the song straining to become the performer “Who You Love” truly requires. Oscillating between attempts to mirror Kelly Clarkson and a retro soul diva, Perry is never comfortably herself–or even one persona–on the track. Departing from oneself is never advisable in music, but the blatant irony of doing so on a song like “Who You Love” only reinforces the extent of the misfire. In addition to telling the wrong story, “Who You Love” chooses the wrong person to tell the story.
Had Perry represented a strong musical counterpart for Mayer and thus the best possible duet partner, the contextual criticism would have been unfair.
And that sentiment has far broader ramifications for “Paradise Valley.” Given John Mayer’s aims and identity as an artist, an emotionally-hollow album like “Paradise Valley” could never be a fundamentally-great album. But if Mayer had compensated for the album’s root failing with brilliant auxiliary choices from start-to-finish, he could have at least constructed a more compelling LP.
Opening track–and album standout–”Wildfire” epitomizes the optimistic truth of that notion. The breezy, bluesy, bonfire song might not offer the most vivid window into Mayer’s emotions, but it does transport the singer-songwriter into a relaxing vibe. However detached from that vibe in reality, Mayer becomes the appropriate narrator from the song, and in submersing himself so notably, he creates a song far more believable than anything else on the album. The song’s fantastic guitar line and wonderfully-catchy hook provide even more incentive for ignoring any of the song’s fundamental limitations.
Mayer’s knack for guitar and composition work similar magic on the gorgeous “Waiting on the Day,” and a confident, restrained vocal performance almost helps “I Will Be Found” overcome the absurdity of lyric “I’m a little birdie in a big ol’ tree.”
Emotional standards for covers differ from those of original tracks, and thanks to his authentic, expertly-played effort, Mayer does justice to JJ Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze.” It lacks the investment of his revelatory “Bold as Love” cover, but it features enough competency and urgency to escape the trivial label warranted by so many other tracks on “Paradise Valley.”
With these four tracks, Mayer reasserts his talent and readily demonstrates that he can be a musical force in this genre. The problem is that the bulk of “Paradise Valley” is developed not in the genre but for the genre, and the result is a futile forty minutes with little to say about Mayer, let alone the world (or at least that of music) at large. It’s a distant collection of songs rather than a tangible commentary, and it therefore becomes a showcase of Mayer, the singer and guitar player, rather than Mayer, the artist.
Though never accurate, there was a “Wonderland” of a time in which such an allegation–that Mayer was a great guitarist but not a true artist–was commonplace. That era came to an end with the “Continuum” masterpiece, and though follow-up albums “Battle Studies” and “Born and Raised” were not as good, they continued Mayer’s maturity into an emotionally-rich artist. They made application of the “phony” label completely inappropriate.
Mayer’s musicality, technical ability and voice–on the rebound from vocal cord surgery–have never been better and more suited to create an epic record. Unfortunately, that motivation–or any determination rooted in something other than an organic need to confront his emotions–turns “Paradise Valley” into the kind of listenable, yet insignificant album critics have long (but wrongly) assumed was par for the John Mayer course.
Paradise Valley releases on August 20.
1) Wildfire – 4:13
2) Dear Marie – 3:42
3) Waitin’ On the Day – 4:33
4) Paper Doll – 4:17
5) Call Me the Breeze – 3:25
6) Who You Love ft. Katy Perry – 4:09
7) I Will Be Found – 4:01
8) Wildfire ft. Frank Ocean – 1:25
9) You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down – 2:45
10) Badge & Gun – 3:12
11) On The Way Home – 3:59
Tracks to Know:
Paper Doll, Wildfire, Who You Love
Tracks to Enjoy:
Wildfire, Waiting on the Day