Album Review

John Mayer - Paradise Valley

Released August 20, 2013
Chad W. Lutz
When John Mayer’s debut album Room For Squares hit shelves on September 18, 2001, the artist from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was only twenty-three years old. Almost presumably, the sounds on Rooms For Squares were largely immature, playful odes to youth and rebellion in the face of love’s many labors and hardships. Acoustic guitar and soft, wistful vocals spoke of coming-of-age, holding onto Hope, and women you can’t seem to take your mind off of. But now, over a decade later, that John Mayer is thirty-five, and perhaps thrashed around by an industry that, all too often, swallows men up and never spits back out the same proportions of the person ever again.

On August 20, 2013, the twenty-three now thirty-five year young kid released his sixth studio album on Columbia and Sony Music records. The album is called Paradise Valley, but a first look at the grey-sky cover art, with a melancholy Mayer standing idle in a giant field past its prime, staring listlessly off into the distance, provides a markedly different impression than the title might suggest. Even the dog featured on the cover appears to be wise to the uneasy anxiety created by the brooding grey skies.

It’s no secret that at some point in the music game pressures from fans and executives and family and friends begin to weigh down on a person, especially someone who has seen as much success as John Mayer has. Up until 2009’s Battle Studies, Mayer had pretty much been able to do no wrong. Room For Squares, a massive commercial success in its own right, gave way to the blue-sier but still heavily acoustic Heavier Things, which produced the singer-songwriter-guitarist’s first number-one single and two Grammy Awards. Fast-forward three years to 2006 with the release of Continuum: an album that featured a John Mayer like none of us had ever seen. Hard, sultry, and electric; it was rock n’ roll done John Mayer-style with several stylistic nods to popular artists of the 1960s, including a cover of The Jimi Hendrix Experience song “Bold As Love”. But something happened in the years following that saw another marked change in the artist’s overarching style, and it left fans and critics scratching their heads.

John Mayer became a sellout, or at least that’s how it appeared on the surface. After touring with the likes of B.B. King and Eric Clapton during his blues trio tour, all of a sudden the man who once looked as squeaky clean as a rubber squeegee and later accrued as much ink on his left arm as you could probably find in the pen aisle at the local Office Max was singing poppy, mindless duets with Taylor Swift and songs about getting high that you could easily have expected, before the ink on his lyric sheets ever dried, would be laughed out of radio play by the average deejay and most harsh critics lurking in the bowels of the industry. And then came the ten-gallon hats and drug-rug ponchos. It was at that point I, and probably most people, had no idea what to think of John Mayer anymore.

With Continuum, it appeared as though Mayer had tapped into something so real and so visceral that no matter what he produced, as long as it was in that same vein, the songs would turn into instant gold. And if all of that ever failed, there were always the angsty pop, acoustic love songs he could fall back on that millions of people around the world already adored him for. But he didn’t. Instead, John Mayer went country, and rather unsuccessfully. Although both Battle Studies and Born and Raised reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, Battle Studies sold roughly a third of what Continuum had. Born and Raised has sold only 514,000 copies worldwide and serves as the only release from Mayer failing to reach Platinum certification by RIAA standards.

Okay, so, you’re thirty-three years old now, you’ve seen a steady decline in your popularity over the years, you’ve had high-profile relationships dissolve very plainly in the public eye, every music executive, deejay, and critic in the country has been hailing the end of your professional career for the last seven years, and the last album you put out only sold a fifth as many copies as your best. No one wants to hear the styles your interested in, and, as it goes in the artistic world oftentimes, you’ve been typecast and fit neatly into a little mold you never wanted anything to do with because in the beginning you were just being true to you, which you still feel you are, only no one likes you, feels remorse, or holds any reserve in telling you so.

I hear you, John Mayer, loud and clear. And in every song featured on Paradise Valley, you can hear him, too. He’s having fun again, writing the songs he wants to, and it comes through on the 11-track LP. Although stylistically similar to Born and Raised with country and bluegrass song structures featuring slide and steel guitar, several blues elements of Continuum, the brooding lyricism of Heavier Things, and playful acoustic melodies of Room For Squares find their way into Paradise Valley. It doesn’t even appear that a recent surgery to repair vocal chords has had much affect on the artist’s comforting croons.

Most of the themes present on the album lend to years gone by, and is it any wonder? “Waitin’ on the Day”, “I Will Be Found (Lost At Sea)”, and “Dear Marie” best exemplify a man searching to make sense of his past. Paradise Valley also features notable collaborations with Katy Perry and Frank Ocean, whom Mayer cross-collaborated with on the latter’s 2012 debut channel ORANGE. Overall, the album is slow but it pulls on just the right strings. Mayer has again found that emotional vapor that seduces us from across a crowded room to ask, “Is this John Mayer?” No, this isn’t Continuum, but something tells me, and mainly the edgy “Badge and Gun”, that Mayer feels he’s paid his dues to write and play whatever he wants, and there’s little doubt in my mind with this record that he won’t.