[29 May 2008]
Jason Mraz has a proven record as a pop tunesmith, a guy who can write and sing a catchy verse-chorus combo that will zip through the radio airwaves directly to your ear. His 2002 debut Waiting for My Rocket to Come was, of course, part come-on and part wordplay, and the hit single “The Remedy” (you know, “The remedy… is the experience… This is a dangerous liaison”) was hard to deny. It snapped with radio-ready syncopation. Pop music ought to be fun, even if this goofy cat from Virginia insists on wearing nutty hats in all his videos.
After a sophomore effort and then a live album, Mraz is back for your summer listening pleasure with We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things, a third album of original songs. Mraz’s signature has been a word-happy tenor, a wise-guy smirk of songfulness in which he seduces and dances at the same. With this new recording, there is still some of that—“Butterfly” (about, it seems, a young lady’s cha-cha) and “Dynamo”—but the balance of the collection is devoted to more conventional pop, tunes that look backward toward two traditions of the 1970s: confessional sing-songwriting and breezy horn-driven pop.
The disc opens on a tune that feels like a straight-up throwback. “Make It Mine” lays down a smooth funk that might have come from a mid-career Boz Scaggs album or even Joe Jackson, punched up by a Chicago horn section, and topped by a mellow and airy Mraz vocal. Who would have expected that this first track would contain (seriously) a trombone solo?! But there it is—catchy and fun but in a way that seems at least 30 years out of date.
“Live High” taps into a similar feeling of sunny optimism as a poppy anthem with a bell-bottomed soul. Though Mraz fans (and, perhaps, critics) will note that his storied affection with the mellow herb is plainly telegraphed by the song’s title, the main substance of the tune is a suggestion of idealism (“Live high / Live mighty / Live righteously / Takin’ it easy”) that could almost be in the same song with “I’d like to give the world a Coke”. These tunes, in many ways, play to Mraz’s strength as a singer. He was trained in musical theater, and he projects as an articulate, clean-toned voice in love with melody. Even when he’s being a bit naughty, there is no discernable blues cry in Mraz’s frat-boy pop. He projects as clean as Carly Simon in the Me Decade. Why not?
Some of the throwback stuff here is, however, too derivative to wholly enjoy on its own. “Only Human” sounds almost exactly like a Bill Withers tune, with a snappy repeated bass/Rhodes lick over which Mraz croons, followed by a bridge and a louder return to the chorus. “If It Kills Me” starts as a “Day in the Life”-ish piano song, with the chorus really bringing on the orchestral part. These tunes have a journeyman quality, as if they were written as emulation exercises—skillful but not fresh.
That said, his credentials as a serious singer-songwriter have got to be boosted by We Sing…. “Love For a Child” is a serious story-song, a moving autobiography by a narrator who wishes his parents had been better and more concerned. The arrangement is direct and acoustic, with Mraz deep into his sincerity bag. “What about taking this empty cup and filling it up,” the chorus goes, “With a little bit more of innocence / I haven’t had enough / It’s probably because when you’re young / It’s okay to be easily ignored.” Yikes, Jason, we feel your pain. Similarly, “Details in the Fabric” sounds like a song custom-ordered by teens who want to something to play for a friend who is feeling down: “Calm down / Deep breaths / And get yourself dressed instead / Of running around / And pulling all your threads saying / Breaking yourself up” with a chorus of “Everything will be fine”. With its strummed guitars and mellow arrangement, this is another song that seems imported from the past.
“Beautiful Mess” is a nearly whispered ballad supported by acoustic guitar and strings that get as big as they would on a Barry Manilow song. While Mraz’s clipped wordplay is there (“You’re style is quite selective / Though your mind is rather reckless / Well, I guess it just suggests / That this is just what happiness is”), this is mainly a song that plays it pleasingly straight. Jason Mraz, it turns out, wants you to take him seriously. And on some of these songs, he fully earns it.
There are a few songs that seem more squarely aimed at the current market. “I’m Yours” is a catchy faux-reggae tune that lets Mraz play with his phrasing on lines like, “There’s no need to complicate / Our time is short / This is our fate”. Still, how many popular songs on the radio include scat singing? This one does. “Coyotes” starts with a white-guy-hip-hop groove, including a chorus that starts as a weird synth line and then adds singing, and eventual gospel harmony. “Dynamo” is the song you expect from Mraz: super-fast singing that echoes the clever rhyming of hip-hop over a little funk groove. The chorus opens up into the ‘70s again, but in a cool way, with the hip harmonies and a little string part swelling into the best kind of well-produced pop candy.
When a pop musician gets to Album No. 3, its reasonable to ask if they have succeeded in defining themselves. It’s easy enough to see Jason Mraz as a sort of John Mayer Lite (insert your own “John Mayer is already [other musician] Lite” joke here), but perhaps it’s more accurate to see him as an incarnation of the singer-songwriters of the 1970s who knew their rock and soul but also loved the pure pop tradition of an earlier era. Mraz includes all the strings, the trombone solos, and the slightly schmaltzy ballads here with knowing care. The album sounds great, and Mraz knows what he is up to. Less clear, I think, is whether the razzle-dazzle wordsmith who loves his Eminem records is ready to truly enter the marketplace as a serious vocalist and a sober songwriter. We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things is clearly making a bid in that direction.
If that’s your thing, Jason, then go for it. Sing and dance, by all means. On behalf of the artists of the ‘70s, I’d advise against too much theft, but no one ever objecting to some musical borrowing.