John Mayer - Paradise Valley
You might know him as the multi-platinum selling, multi-Grammy winning, musician with three number one albums in America, or you might know him as “that bloke off the tabloids who dated Jennifer Aniston/Katy Perry/Taylor Swift etc”. It’s definitely a case of John Mayer’s fame (infamy?) overshadowing his success and, more disappointingly, his talent. You wonder what he thinks about it all really, it’s partially been addressed in interviews and his lyrics in the past but there must be some regret over his tabloid years. After a few too many controversies, including the infamous Playboy interview, and recurring health issues with his throat, he’s re-focused on his music and Paradise Valley is his second album in two years.
A bluesman at heart, Mayer's live shows are much more free form and jam-like than his mainstream records might suggest. There’s a reason that Mayer’s a big advocate of bootleg recordings of his gigs; it’s where he comes to life, and maybe the only place he displays his technical skills fully. Across the water he’s a respected artist and has a separate life as the leader of John Mayer Trio, who have a top forty album of their own. On Paradise Valley he seems to be continuing to blend those blues leanings into his MOR soft rock. Whether this will speed up his currently slow and stealthy progress into the British market is the big question. His sell out shows at The O2 and Wembley Arena are by far his biggest in this country to date, suggesting that word is spreading.
2012’s Born And Raised introduced an even mellower John Mayer than usual; the country leanings that he started to display on that release return in force here, as early as ‘Dear Marie’, one of his semi-autobiographical tales of long lost lovers (“now I wonder what you think when you see me on the magazine”) and on ‘You’re No One Til Someone Lets You Down’. ‘Call Me The Breeze’ is as close to an old time blues track as Mayer will let himself get, great blues guitar and a hammond organ lend it authenticity; he literally has to stop himself before getting too far into an improvised guitar solo, more’s the pity. There are two totally unrelated versions of ‘Wildfire’, the first a chipper opening track, all gospel clapping and upbeat tempo, whilst Mayer get to show off his guitar chops on the closing solo. The second is all about Frank Ocean. It’s like there’s a mini competition on who has got the most effortless voice, and the winner is Ocean. His ‘Wildfire’ is emotional, soulful and restrained. And possibly the best ninety seconds on the album.
Recent single ‘Paper Doll’ is the perfect example of a Mayer song, with its smooth vocals, low down soft percussion and key change for the chorus, there’s a late night love song feel to it. But... is it about Taylor Swift? Who knows, and really, who cares? From a song about an ex to the requisite duet with his current beau, Katy Perry gets the honours on ‘Who You Love’. Unsurprisingly its musings are on not being able to choose who to fall in love with, although not as cute as you might think. Another example of Mayer's new found positivity and of carrying a message of hope, ‘Will Be Found (Lost At Sea)’ is another pleasant soft rock tune with a subtly catchy melody.
Paradise Valley follows his now standard template, lots of soft rock, a bit of blues-lite, plenty of relationship songs. It’s pleasant enough but you feel he’s capable of more. It’s John Mayer on autopilot, fans will lap it up but it’s not going to convert any doubters. When all’s said though, there’s still something about that butter smooth voice, those acoustic guitar noodlings, and the skill for writing great melodies that combine to make Paradise Valley feel as comfortable and familiar as an old pair of boots.