Whether it was life slapping him around a bit, his lengthy recovery from his vocal surgery, or just a general maturing, over the course of 2012’s excellent, underrated “Born and Raised” and “Paradise Valley,” John Mayer’s sturdy new album out today, Mayer has found his voice again. And a confidence that he never previously possessed.
Even though Mayer is only 35, he’s developed an old soul. He’s talked in interviews about not really fitting in at mainstream radio anymore and that may be true, but his former pop sheen has been replaced with something that sounds a lot like career longevity.
Almost everything on “Paradise Valley” has an unrushed, pleasing, timeless feel to it that never sounds forced. It’s tempting to use the word tasteful, if it weren’t now a polite synonym for boring and bland, which “Paradise Valley” is absolutely not.
Don Was, who produced “Born And Raised” and co-produces with Mayer here, has created an intimacy that feels as if Mayer is playing in your living room. His vocals and his guitars are closely miked and there’s a lot of air around the notes. Just as the recording sounds unhurried, it also sounds blessedly uncrowded, a rarity these days. Most songs have wide open spaces to let the notes breathe and let the excellent musicianship shine through.
Mayer has always had a ear tuned toward country and he lets it flourish on “You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down,” a Randy Newman-like amusing, yet pointed, look at love gone sour with an extremely pliant pedal steel solo by the master, Paul Franklin, as well as Chet Atkins-type playing by Mayer.
Franklin returns for another of “Paradise Valley’s” finest tracks, “Dear Marie,” a swaying, chugging country cut about looking up a lost love. “From time to time, I go looking for your photograph online/some kind of judge in Ohio is all I find,” Mayer sings. There’s a simple beauty and truth to the track.
The piano ballad, “I Will Be Lost (At Sea),” has a sure touch, anchored by Chuck Leavell’s gorgeous keyboards, and lyrically, it speaks of a certain redemption no matter how rough the water. It feels like that redemption may be here now for Mayer.
If you need more proof that this is not your Mayer of yore, he’s looking for longtime love on “Waitin’ On The Day,” a gentle ode to fidelity that is as far from “Your Body Is A Wonderland” as possible. Similarly, on the lilting “Who You Love,” featuring his current girlfriend and co-writer Katy Perry, Mayer and Perry address the joy of falling in love with someone when you least expect it. It’s sweet and deliberately non-showy, although Perry's giggle at the end is a little twee. Perry’s not the only love interest referenced here: first single, “Paper Doll” (with its of-the-moment Prancercising video) is rumored to be about Taylor Swift.
Other than Perry, the other high-wattage guest is Frank Ocean on “Wildfire,” a 88-second emotional track with Ocean on lead about a suicidal friend. A second “Wildfire” serves as Mayer’s response to Ocean’s song.
Mayer wrote all the tracks here except for Ocean’s “Wildfire,” and a southern fried cover of the late JJ Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze,” which just drops off as if it were a first take. Like most of the songs here, Mayer’s clean, crisp guitar playing is surrounded with the lightest of accompaniment: drums, bass and keyboard. When the players are as accomplished as these, no further embellishment is needed.