Twenty two seconds. That’s all it takes Jason Mraz to get back to the type of acoustic guitar pop reggae upstrokes that made “I’m Yours” 2008’s unavoidable mega-hit on his latest set, Love Is a Four Letter Word. That’s it. A mere 22 seconds. Not even half a minute. A few lines, some hand drum sounds mixed with open guitar cords and boom: “The Freedom Song” instantly reminds you of why you fell in love with “I’m Yours” regardless of how much you may have tried not to.
Actually, the move is a little indicative of what Love Is a Four Letter Word proves to be within the context of Jason Mraz’s career — every time you are ready to discount him and his music, you somehow find yourself in a room or a car or a bar or party with one of his songs playing, suddenly realizing how much you enjoy whatever it is you are hearing. But then you figure out who it is you are listening to. And then you immediately stop subconsciously bopping your head or tapping your feet. And then you look around. And then you feel like a moron when you notice the guy wearing an M83 T-shirt is looking at you, shaking his head.
It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to suggest that Jason Mraz has created such scenarios many times for many different dudes from all walks of life. All told, it shouldn’t be this hard to like an artist, but considering how hatable he comes off in interviews and appearances — and how seemingly insincere his whole love obsession tends to feel from time to time — Mraz certainly doesn’t make it easy for one to settle into genuinely enjoying his songs, let alone one of his records. And it’s not a boy/girl thing, either. He isn’t in the Gavin DeGraw, “I suppose I can understand why ladies enjoy him, but how on Earth could a dude ever truly connect with some of that stuff” category. He’s in the “He seems painfully egotistical and somehow managed to make the act of wearing fedoras look tool-ish” category. Admitting you like him falls somewhere between admitting you went to a Dave Matthews concert the night after catching Bela Fleck and his original Flecktones. You’ll get an initial look of disdain that will almost immediately turn to acceptance once you begin talking about how much you love Vic Wooten.
The same idiom applies here. “Ewwww — another Jason Mraz record”, one might think. “And he even put the word ‘love’ in the title this time!” But then you listen to it and you begin to reconsider your own judgmental presumptions almost instantly.
“The Freedom Song” is the best example of such. Kicking off the record, the song features all the elements that make the songwriter so appealing. Beautiful backing harmonies? Check. The phrase “when I feel good”? Check. A chilled-out tone that embarrassingly brings a smile to your face without even feeling it? Check. The word “joy”? Double check. What makes this particular track memorable is where Mraz opts to go after dabbling in the beach-dude formula he’s always been so well at conveying throughout his four studio albums. After nearly a minute of the “I’m Yours” groove, the rest of his band kicks in and things really start to get interesting. A powerful horn section sends tingles through your upper back and an irresistibly funky backbone paves the way for one of the greatest songs of the man’s career. Love pop music or hate pop music, this is pretty good stuff.
“5/6” is equally as interesting. Its time signature title suggesting what listeners will be in for, the song is the closest thing Mraz has ever been to jazz. A retro-soul, offbeat feel dominating the nearly six-minute track, “5/6” evokes Booker T. and his MGs with its prominent organ and atmospheric backdrop. And while it shines the light on a side Mraz doesn’t show often, the song certainly makes a pretty good case for how accomplished a musician he can be. “Frank D. Fixer”, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the poppier side of O.A.R. with its sparse electric guitar and upbeat feel. “I wish I was a fixer / I would fix you up inside”, the singer croons during the track’s chorus, reminding us all of exactly how helpful and how willing he swears he is to share the “wonderful idea of love”. The entire thing wouldn’t be nearly as believable if the song didn’t evoke the same type of positivity its music bleeds.
Speaking of that positivity, though, such an emphasis on the value of it is where Love Is a Four Letter Word becomes a bit too grating to take at times. “I Won’t Give Up”, for instance, is acoustic guitar-laden folky pop that falls at least a little bit flat with its predictably bland approach. While the song’s hook proves itself memorable enough, the track never graduates into anything other than the ballad-like tediousness the singer has a tendency to revert into. “In Your Hands” and “Be Honest” both trap themselves into the same type of coffee-house muck “I Won’t Give Up” does its best to emulate. These aren’t particularly bad choices, per se. They just seem disappointing considering how promising some of the other tracks here prove to be.
“Living in the Moment” is a lot of fun, its whistling proving as much to any listener with an open mind. The acoustic upstrokes reappear here, too, making the song’s pop reggae vibe standout above most of the other upbeat tunes that appear here. “Everything Is Sound” is the quintessential Jason Mraz song, with its quirky feel and optimistic outlook (think “The Remedy” without as much electricity). And “The World As I See It” is destined for Top 40 Adult Contemporary domination. The song bleeds elevator atmosphere and each listen proves how well it would fit in next to a John Tesh lullaby or a Train ballad. The cord progression is simple and unoffensive, the perfect combination for audiences who love Delilah and can’t get enough of Matchbox Twenty.
And while that type of description may be viewed as derogatory, it would be both unjust and irresponsible to dismiss it as such. Jason Mraz isn’t good at what he does — he’s great at it. Love Is a Four Letter Word serves as a reminder as to why even the most jaded of music fans should be able to gather as much. He’s taking the true-blue pop rock formula and expanding on it in ways other, less competent musicians fail to do in today’s world of watered-down songwriting and formulaic radio. Sure, Jason Mraz might not be the most endearing guy out there, but when you write songs as interesting and expansive as some of those that appear here, it’s impossible to dismiss or discredit the guy’s knack for crafting neat little pop tunes. Besides, when your blend of original music is as infectious and accessible as this, you earn the right to be a little obnoxious from time to time, right?