Tell a bunch of people you meet at a party that John Mayer is one of your favorite songwriters, and you may get a few curt nods, perhaps even one or two wide-eyed declarations of agreement, but quite often, you will see rolled eyes and barely restrained scoffs instead. Whether a result of the off-putting public persona Mayer was putting forth a few years ago or a lingering disrespect for the artist’s early pop radio hits, I have found that a lot of people still dismiss John Mayer as an asshole, a playboy, and a mediocre songwriter. I can’t claim to have met the man and wouldn’t presume to make accusations in the first two categories, but I have always found it strange that my friends and family members don’t share so much as a fraction of my adoration for Mayer’s musical output, especially because he has proven himself to be so much more than just the twenty-something heartthrob that sang “Your Body is a Wonderland” on MTV over a decade ago.
Sure, Mayer may have had his moment in the pop star limelight, but more than just about anyone who has broken through to the mainstream in the past 15 years, he always had an artistic thirst that radio and fame could not temper. The product of a brief tenure at the legendary Berklee College of Music—a school with a history of making stars out of its drop-outs and reputed music teachers out of its graduates—Mayer may have sounded like an evolution of the boy band craze when he first achieved widespread recognition, but people who actually listened to his major label debut, 2001’s Room for Squares, could hear that there was more than met the eye to this particular pop troubadour. Elements of classic blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and folk music were peeking out from the corners of those songs, and while the edges were airbrushed and rounded off by crisp, label-approved production, a listener who spent more time with “Neon” and “3×5” than with “Why Georgia” and “No Such Thing” could hear that Mayer was definitely a real talent in it for the long haul.
Fast forward 12 years and Mayer is one of the few stars of that era who has successfully been able to transition his image, and the most amazing part is that he’s done it more than once. The first quantum leap, 2006’s blues-rock opus Continuum, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mayer was a world class guitar player with the songwriting skills to boot, while last year’s stunning Born and Raised largely traded his pop and blues roots for Laurel Canyon folk. Mayer’s sixth full-length record, titled Paradise Valley, is a sequel of sorts to Born and Raised—and the second in a supposed trilogy of roots-music albums—and while the album doesn’t have the dynamic genre-hopping sensibility that made both Continuum and Born and Raised instant classics, it’s still a solid set of songs that follows one of today’s best songwriters as he establishes a new comfort zone.
Let’s start with the good (and it’s mostly good): where Born and Raised may have turned off some longtime fans—it was Mayer’s least popular album to date in the mainstream—Paradise Valley returns to similar territory while also keeping an eye on Mayer’s pop roots. The resulting set of songs is both catchy and twangy, often hewing as close to modern folk-pop and alt-country as they do to the classic 1970s folk rock that Mayer mined throughout most of the last record. “Paper Doll,” the radiant first single, employs a lilting guitar loop, close-knit chorus harmonies, and a series of indelible lyrical couplets (“Strap into some heels that hurt/You should’ve kept my undershirt”) to create a breezy pop song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place next to “Daughters” or “Your Body is a Wonderland” on one of his earlier records. Meanwhile, “Wildfire,” the album’s stellar opening track, blends earworm vocal melodies with a raucous full-band arrangement for some of the loosest music Mayer has made since the John Mayer Trio live record. It’s the most communal song he’s ever written, complete with hand claps, background hollers, and a rousing fade-out guitar solo, and it has the potential to be a real crossover hit.
Elsewhere though, Mayer’s desire to get back into the good graces of pop radio listeners doesn’t yield such strong results. Part of the reason I loved Born and Raised so much was that its throwback atmosphere never felt anything less than authentic. “Queen of California” could have been on the radio in 1976, sandwiched between “Hotel California” and “Someday Never Comes” on the playlist, while the lush back-up vocals on the title track (courtesy of David Crosby and Graham Nash) make it almost unbelievable that the song has only existed for 15 months. Here, instead of Crosby and Nash, we get Katy Perry and Frank Ocean. Both guests make a certain amount of sense considering the recent personal and career life arcs of John Mayer: Perry, after all, is the songwriter’s current celebrity girlfriend, while Frank Ocean is the latest of his high-profile musical protégés. (Mayer played on two tracks from Ocean’s world-conquering Channel ORANGE last year.) In context, though, both of these very current guest features are mismatched with the rest of the record, which is, on the whole, a collection of nostalgic country music songs. Perry’s feature, on the soon-to-be-huge-single “Who You Love,” is pleasant enough, blending with Mayer’s smooth croon and slick guitar lines throughout a series of cheesy verses and not-terribly-exciting chorus refrains. It’s an innocuous song, weaker than anything Mayer has put on a record in at least 10 years, but deserving of a place on the album for its comfortable, slow-burning facade.
Ocean’s feature, surprisingly, is the disc’s biggest misstep, appearing on a minute-and-a-half long interlude that occurs three-quarters of the way through. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the track, which meanders along in a similar style to much of the transitional music from Ocean’s last album, all while dropping lines like “Back in Paris you told me that you were suicidal/It’s not a vacation if I lose you to the Eiffel” that almost certainly came from the breakout R&B singer’s pen. Ocean sounds great (he always does) and the song’s dusky sonic backdrop, complete with an ambient hum of crickets, is a nice touch, but neither factor is enough to explain the track’s seemingly random placement on the album, or to make it a worthwhile addition to what is otherwise Paradise Valley’s strongest run of songs. The interlude runs out of seconds before it can go anywhere interesting, and Mayer stays very much in the background throughout, begging the question of why he felt inclined to include it here. Some will bypass the oddity of it, opting instead to admire Ocean’s vocals and give John a mental pat on the back for inviting such a buzz-worthy artist to appear on his record. But the consequence of the feature, as well as of the Perry guest spot and the lyrical references to Taylor Swift in “Paper Doll” (“You’re like twenty-two girls in one/And none of them know what they’re running from,” Mayer sings in the song’s chorus, referencing both “22,” Swift’s current single, and “Dear John,” the song she wrote as a dig at him a few years ago), is that Paradise Valley loses the timeless atmosphere and unhurried flow that made Born and Raised such an enduring treasure. These appearances of very up-to-the-minute pop stars feel jarring alongside spacious and solitary anthems like “Dear Marie” or “I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea),” and while it’s hard to fault Mayer for writing a record that has one foot very obviously placed in his own time, I can’t help but feel like he missed an opportunity to build something really special here.
All complaints aside though, when Paradise Valley hits a stride, it hits it hard. “Dear Marie” and “I Will Be Found” are both masterful, the former combining wandering troubadour folk with rousing arena rock, while the latter wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Continuum(were it not for the twang that radiates around the edges). The album’s apex, though, comes with the final three tracks, which showcase precisely why Mayer didn’t need guest stars on this album. The honky-tonk bar swagger of “You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down” is Mayer’s swipe at Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson-esque mainstream country, from the prevalent steel guitar to the clear backwoods inflection in his voice. “Badge and Gun” is the album’s best song, closer to classic country poetry from the likes of Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash, or even Bob Dylan than to the beer-and-pickup-truck nonsense haunting the airwaves today. And album finale “On the Way Home” is a flawless end-of-summer lullaby, with a swiftly plucked acoustic guitar and lines like “the summer’s over, this town is closing/they’re waving people out of the ocean” that feel tailor made for laying Earth’s most glorious season to rest.
“Give me those jet-black, kick-back, lay down nights alone,” Mayer sings on “Badge and Gun.” “This house is safe and warm, but I was made to chase the storm/Taking the whole world on with big ol’ empty arms.” Those lines do more to sum up Paradise Valley than anything I write here can. It’s an album for wandering beneath the stars on a humid summer night, looking for answers to whatever life’s thrown your way, and doing it all by yourself. So many of the great country music stars, they were loners, jamming with different bands from night to night, drinking until dawn, and then packing up and beating their way down a dusty road to the next town. At its best, Paradise Valley is a vintage evocation of those legends and their dysfunctional but wildly romantic way of life. But this record also doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be. The guest spots distract from the lonesome mission statement of “Badge and Gun,” pulling the album away from its obvious throwback leanings and trying to wring a radio hit or some current relevance from proceedings. But the thing is, I don’t think Mayer needs that stuff anymore. With Born and Raised, he wandered away from the mainstream, and with Paradise Valley, it feels like he’s ready to hop a time warp into the classic vinyl age and live out the rest of his days making noise with the blues, folk, and country music influences that have shaped his career. The legacy of this record, as well as of its predecessor, will likely be decided by next year’s supposed third installment, but for my part, I hope it’s his parting gift to the radio world. Mayer is great at playing the pop game, but he’s so much more interesting when he’s following less commercial aspirations.