[20 August 2013]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
So, as it turns out, John Mayer wasn’t just having a bit of fun. Born & Raised, the singer-songwriter’s sixth studio album, was in some ways a natural progression following his increasing love affair with the blues, particularly with records like the masterful Continuum and to a lesser extent Battle Studies. At the same time, it was impressive just how much he committed to the bit; from the country flourishes of “Shadow Days” and “Queen of California” to the fact that he moved to Montana, his newfound love for the rustic was surprising when Born & Raised dropped more than a year ago. Part of the album’s stripped-down, authentic sound had to do with Mayer’s newfound need for honesty, especially after that one Playboy interview that’s impossible to not mention when discussing his most recent sonic paradigm shifts. Using the sounds of the prairielands as a sort of head-clearing space, he exorcised some of his inner demons while maintaining that devilish playboy spirit of his (see: “Something Like Olivia,” his ode to the actress Olivia Wilde). Still, despite the vigor and confidence Born & Raised injected into Mayer’s music, it felt more like a one-off than anything else; instead of trading in all of his street clothes for Wranglers and cowboy boots, it seemed as if he had merely taken a weekend trip to a guest ranch to cleanse his spirit. Boots and hats were involved, sure, but only superficially—or so it appeared.
Not but a year later, Mayer’s out to show the world that he isn’t giving up on the gains he’s made. Born & Raised is far from a one-time venture; though it functions well as a variation on the many themes Mayer’s developed over his career, now it’s clear that he’s going for broke with his love of country music, as well as California rock. The famed “Mellow Mafia” of the 1970s, whose leadership included Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, and Warren Zevon, have not only faded out of time but out of critical favor. That relaxed, easy-breezily introspective style isn’t even vogue in country circles anymore, and amongst popular music rags there’s even a near vitriolic disdain for it. But of the many labels that Mayer fits well, it’s unabashed, and with Born & Raised and now Paradise Valley, he’s plunged headfirst into that ‘70s California sound, wholeheartedly employing steel guitar, pull-off riffs, and twang to create a laid-back record that pushes him further into territory that is leagues away from “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
It’s that saccharine tribute to hotel sex that still pits people against Mayer; for detractors, he’s still the guy who sung about “candy lips and bubblegum tongues,” not the sophisticated guitar virtuoso that emerged following the promising but flawed debut of Room for Squares. Admittedly, he’s done a considerable amount to turn the public against him, be it his alarming racist comments or his kiss-and-tell-all streak. (The folks at Huffington Post can refresh your memory if needed.) For those reasons, one wouldn’t be wrong in speculating that “paradise valley” was a nickname he had for Jennifer Aniston’s abs—all recent honesty aside. From a musical standpoint, however, neither Room for Squares nor its followup, Heavier Things, are indicative of what Mayer is really about. After the release of the latter, he began to amp up his profile as a bona fide guitar player and not just the pop charmer the public had made him out to be. He formed a blues trio under his own name. He performed at Eric Clapton’s revered Crossroads Festival. With Continuum he took the gains he made while working with guys like Clapton and brought the world a modern blues classic, giving hints that his potential as the next Stevie Ray Vaughan wasn’t all bluster. Then, as if things couldn’t get any better, Mayer filmed Where the Light Is, a landmark of a live LP that brought together three sets into a single comprehensive show, including an acoustic “opening set,” a blistering run-through of the blues with his trio, and a set of his classics. As early as “Neon,” he made his prowess on the guitar plain, but with high-energy renditions of Continuum cuts such as “Belief”, it was obvious that pop stardom was not his aim. His chops are tried and true, plain and simple, and his music continues to match his growing compositional strength.
The same holds true for Paradise Valley, albeit in a different way. Born & Raised‘s overt country influences would have been entirely without precedent were it not for the presence of Mayer’s signature bluesy style of guitar playing; with a few modifications, “Shadow Days” could have easily been a Battle Studies B-side. On Paradise Valley, he’s throwing his chips down on country even more—the wonderful lead single “Wildfire” and “You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down” veer close to pure country, though he wisely holds himself back from trying to ape a purist sound for which he’s not properly equipped. “Country” isn’t a misclassification here; it’s an integral element to this record’s sonic. But as with his past outings, Mayer isn’t “purely” anything; on Paradise Valley he brings in the blues, rock and even a little bit of hummable pop. The latter is where “Paper Doll”, his rejoinder to Taylor Swift’s “Dear John”, comes in. The song’s headline-worthy lyrics are smart in a way few will likely give them credit for (“You’re like 22 girls in one” is as accurate a description of Swift’s chronic short-term dater persona as there’s ever been) and, best of all, the light quality of the music blends in perfectly with its otherwise un-poppy surroundings. Preceding “Paper Doll” is the melancholy “Waitin’ on the Day” and immediately after it is a straightforward take on the blues and Skynyrd classic “Call Me the Breeze”, done in a similar vein as Mayer’s cover of Robert Johnson and Cream’s “Crossroads” for Battle Studies. The calm-and-collected quality underlying all these songs gives them a cohesion that’s easy to miss, especially considering the subtle genre variations that occur here.
Fortunately, Mayer isn’t alone, and the two collaborations he obtained for this 11-track LP not only enhance his playing but they also enhance the talent of the additional performers as well. Frank Ocean drops in to repay the favor Mayer gave him on last year’s channel ORANGE (he played guitar on the interlude “White”) by contributing his own interlude, the campfire-evoking “Wildfire”, with insect noises to boot. Most jaw-dropping of all, however, is Katy Perry, who joins Mayer on “Who You Love” to provide some gorgeous backing vocals. One shouldn’t feel taken aback if she doesn’t recognize Perry here at first pass; her performance is more akin to country legends like Martina McBride than any of her own forays into alien sex or cotton candy Californias. In a turn of events that’s rare on any album of any genre, Mayer’s guest stars deepen their performing abilities alongside the main attraction. Hearing Perry absolutely wow with her understated guest spot makes a lot of sense when her presence is paired with Mayer’s maturing romantic confessionals. On “Dear Marie” he tells a lost love, “From time to time/I go looking for your photograph online/Some kind of judge in Ohio’s all I ever find.” It’s a moment of genuine, self-effacing honesty that’s relatable in ways many won’t like to admit.
The level of growth on Paradise Valley with respect to Mayer’s ability as a singer/songwriter is remarkable, especially considering how the first go-round of this sonic experiment happened only last year. Yet as good as this is, it’s hard to say if he will stick to his newfound sonic repertory come the next time he takes to the studio; after all, he hit a similar peak in a different style with Continuum, and while the echoes of that record are undoubtedly present, he’s moved on in a way that suggests the past is the past. His current method involves an approach of taking the best from what he’s done before and integrating it into the folds of genres not so far off from the ground he’s already tread. This does mean sacrificing some of the fire that drove stuff like the performance on Where the Light Is, but being chilled out suits him just fine. And, underneath it all, he’s the same goofball who knows exactly how to turn people off at parties. “I’m a little birdie a big ol’ tree,” he sings on “I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea)”. “Your Body is a Wonderland” is, at this point, a relic of Mayer’s early career rather than a tried-and-true classic. Somehow, the spirit that motivated him to write about the wonders of Jennifer Love Hewitt is the same one that keeps Paradise Valley as utopian calm as its name suggests. The Mellow Mafia has a new capo, and his name is John Mayer.