Contrary to popular belief, time apparently does not heal all wounds—or at least, heal them as quickly as people would like. Even though it’s been several years since John Mayer has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, his name still seems to be a bit polarizing when spoken in public, evoking memories of arrogant, off-the-cuff statements and TMI stories of girlfriends past.
But here’s the thing: almost every artist is a broken soul. It’s just that some brokenness evokes our sympathy, and some brokenness pisses us off. We’d probably be very forgiving of John Mayer if he was a drug addict, but if he acts like an asshole, we’re going to hold it against him for years—even though both are different manifestations of brokenness. See my point?
So having said that, I’m going to attempt the impossible and separate the artist from his behavior, and just concentrate on his art. In that context, I have to say that Paradise Valley is a remarkable album by a very talented songwriter and musician.
Stylewise, the album stays the course set by last year’s Born and Raised; Mayer stays solidly within the roots/Americana vein, with that signature twist of blue-eyed soul brought in by Mayer’s smooth voice (now fully restored after two surgeries and lots of rest). The style fits him quite well.
The confessional nature of his recent work continues with Paradise Valley, as well—and here’s where it gets a little difficult to separate the artist from his history or his current life, because John Mayer draws from both with little sense of shame, almost as if he’s inviting the scrutiny. It’s very difficult to hear the single “Paper Doll”—an ode to an apparently shallow girl—as anything other than a sly backhand of ex Taylor Swift, or as a response to her “Dear John.” Especially when there are lyrics like “You’re like 22 girls in one / And none of them know what they’re running from.” (Really? Why the number 22? Why not 35? Or 26? Or 15? Oh, wait, that one’s not good, either.) Likewise, “Who You Love” brings in current squeeze Katy Perry for a duet, and her guest verse is hard to interpret as anything else than a blatant defense of the singer: “My boy he ain’t the one that I saw coming / And some have said his heart’s too hard to hold / And it takes a little time, but you should see him when he shines.” Um…okay. Not gonna even be a little subtle about it, I guess.
Then there are other times when the transparency is quite refreshing. “I Will Be Found (Lost At Sea)” presents one of the album’s most honest moments, as Mayer sings, “I’m a little lost at sea / I’m a little birdie in a big ol’ tree / Ain’t nobody looking for me here on the highway / But I will be found.”
And here’s the other thing: for all these sometimes uncomfortable personal moments, they actually happen to be the most memorable tunes on the record. To borrow a highly overused cliché, Mayer has managed to take life’s lemons and make lemonade, drawing even from his less savory moments to craft some amazing songs. Gotta give him props for that.
There are a couple of other memorable moments that we’d be remiss not to mention. There are actually two tracks on the album titled “Wildfire,” though they are essentially different songs; on the second of the two, Frank Ocean drops in as if by surprise for a very powerful minute and a half. And sometimes, the context of life does all the work for you; Mayer’s cover of “Call Me the Breeze” is an excellent rendition on its own, but the all-too-recent passing of songwriter J.J. Cale makes this cut an unintended but beautiful tribute to him.
So think what you will about John Mayer the person; as an artist and songwriter, his work sits consistently near the top of his peer group. Paradise Valley might lose a few points owing to the name of the person who made it—but it shouldn’t. For all its associated baggage, it’s still one of the best crafted records of the year.