Paradise Valley by John Mayer

John Mayer | Paradise Valley | Rating: 8.2/11 |

Released: August 20, 2013

Upon first listen to John Mayer’s Paradise Valley you may find yourself: a) nodding off, b) confused or c) appreciating the twisted celebrity love/sex/rock and roll fantasy that flamboyantly played out in the public eye between this love and that one in Mayer’s little black book because at the end of the day it produced two subsequent works (beginning with Born and Raised) of “get back on the rails” contrition and now Paradise Valley.

You’re like 22 girls in one / And none of them know what they’re running from / Was it just too far to fall for a little paper doll

Now that we’ve acknowledged that the remains of the John Mayer/Taylor Swift-affair do, indeed, make an appearance (and a well-crafted, pointed one) on this record we can move on.

Mayer entered a period of extended musical self-reflection which, while one can assume it has been personally fulfilling and emotionally reparative, Mayer’s alternative explorations towards his inner Country/Americana/Roots-man have challenged the faith and patience of more than a few listeners as well as music critics. That said, it’s his world and he can do whatever he damned well pleases – as long as he is accepting of the consequences. Surely he has proven that inside and outside of the recording studio. But where once sang a Lothario, now in its place sits a chastened artist lucky to still possess the ability to sing after career threatening throat surgeries and it shows throughout Paradise Valley as Mayer navigates somewhat in vocal cruise control. More an observation, less a dig as the approach matches the temper and temperature of the album: this is no Continuum, folks.

Absolute torch and twang are woven throughout this Don Was production; Mayer all pure countrified sans the George Strait accent and 10-gallon hat (thank God) on the stellar “Badge and Gun” and “Dear Marie” (an examination of that love lost to time and fame) and all the more seemingly at ease within his own bruised but healing skin. It’s not blistering guitar work that carries this album but graceful and relaxed stretches that are allowed to inhale deep pockets of Montana air (where he now calls home) and breathe. It’s also not a stretch to say  that “Wildfire” provides the record’s gloriously warmest and skillfully sunniest guitar work supported by lighthearted and toe-tap encouraging moments of fleshed out joy, hand claps and some down-home by the creek romancing as Mayer points out that “A little bit of summer’s what the whole year’s all about” while Frank Ocean’s “Wildfire” interpretation/interlude is so soul alt that you may ask, “Why?” The answer: reciprocation.

Mayer gingerly shuffles through J.J. Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze” and Cale’s recent passing makes the tribute all the more fitting. “Who You Love” brings about an Adult Contemporary moment when Mayer and on/off/on again love Katy Perry subtly flesh out their parallel realities. A little mushy, yes, and Perry’s closing giggle may elicit an eye roll but it gets to the heart of their matter with a self-contained and welcoming warmth. What it lacks in meaty substance it makes up for in honesty and perspective.

The gift of Mayer’s penchant for rock solid songwriting is always the gift that keeps on giving. However simplistic “I’m a little lost at sea / I’m a little birdie in a big ol’ tree / Ain’t nobody looking for me here out on the highway” may seem, it is a chorus that lightens the beautiful and wanderlust weight of “I Will Be Found (Lost At Sea).”

For all the wounds (self-inflicted and otherwise) that Mayer has sucked up and endured over the years, what is worth remembering is the music and the man. While sometimes difficult to reconcile the two, discounting one in an effort to reconcile the other is kind of pointless. And at the end of the listening day Mayer’s Paradise Valley hits a relaxed and comforting note along his journey, which may be indicative of the fact that perhaps he, indeed, has been found.

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