It isn’t really a secret that I don’t like country. I like most everything when it comes to music, but something about country makes it tough to love. I like folk and bluegrass and even don’t cringe at the tone of a banjo anymore. I might even go so far as to say I enjoy it. But country just doesn’t do it for me (other than Johnny Cash, everybody loves Johnny Cash). So back in the day when John Mayer followed up his bluesy, soul-infused phase of “Continuum”, “TRY”, and “Where the Light Is” (and the general pop of “Battle Studies”) with “Born and Raised”, I was, to say the least, nonplussed. You can imagine my dismay then, when I heard he was sticking with this new pseudo-country sound on his latest album, “Paradise Valley,” which came out this past Tuesday.
Before I go on, I feel the need to explain my affection for John Mayer and his music. He is kind of an anomaly in my musical tastes which tend more towards alternative or blues or really most anything other than general pop. But the fact of the matter is he is just a damned good guitarist. If you don’t believe me, go check out some of his performances off of “Where the Light Is” and then come back and finish reading. When I was younger and just beginning to play the guitar, I loved old acts like B.B. King or Buddy Guy or Clapton (and of course Hendrix and Zeppelin). Then out of nowhere, this radio standard Mayer started putting out some ridiculously good blues records, and I got hooked. It was nice to have somebody who was still putting out new albums every couple of years who had those kind of guitar skills, and pretty rare on the contemporary music scene where riffs and power chords tend to reign supreme.
So then that refreshingly skilled guitarist decides to throw that whole sound out and tackle country. I was not pleased. But I was willing to listen, and so I gave “Born and Raised” a try and was suitably disappointed. Save for a few strong tracks (such as “Queen of California” or “Submarine Test”), there was nothing close to the polished, smooth ease of “Continuum.” The song writing was shaky and that sweet improv-heavy guitar I had gone crazy over had disappeared. It was clear that Mayer enjoyed making this music, but I certainly didn’t enjoy listening.
And then came “Paradise Valley,” following in the same vein of country-tinged pop. I was all prepared to be as disappointed as I was with “Born,” but having listened through a few times now, I have to admit, I don’t hate it. In fact, I may just like it. The first track “Wildfire” starts out with a playful little riff bouncing around in the background with further guitar layering over top the hand clap rhythm, both creating a complex series of interlocking melodies and highlighting Mayer’s skills with phrasing. The lyrics are simple and fun, waxing poetic about summer and love and the whole thing ends up a nice radio-ready piece of pop. Much of the album from there deals with change and the future, meditating on waiting for love that will last and the life Mayer sees for himself or how he has changed addressing his own questions of self through his lost loves (“Waiting on the Day” and “Dear Marie” respectively).
For me, the weakest tracks were probably those following the bluesy throwback “Call Me the Breeze,” from “Who You Love” up through the seemingly out-of-place Frank Ocean collaboration “Wildfire.” Both the lyrics and the sound itself here tend to be less distinct, with “Who You Love” and “I Will Be Found” blending together until you run into the odd little interlude with Ocean which, which certainly has some great lyrics dealing with the darker complications of love and loss, but whose melodic style runs more with a free-form R n’ B sound typical of Ocean but pretty jarring with Mayer’s otherwise tightly wound country aesthetic. He closes out with three solid tracks, ending on a good note with “On the Way Home” where Mayer takes his leave as he reminds us that “A little bit of Heaven, never hurt no one,” as he wonders when love will find him.
All in all, I have to say I am pleasantly surprised with “Paradise Valley.” I was fully expecting to relegate this album to the same one listen world of “Born and Raised” but I stand corrected. And I’m pretty happy about that.