Tuesday, August 20, 2013

album review: 'paradise valley' by john mayer

I don't like John Mayer.

I never really have, to be honest. Even since the beginning with a succession of critically acclaimed albums, I've never been a fan of the guy in any way, shape, or form. If I was being generous, I'd argue he's written maybe two songs that I like - three if I was pushing it. 

Now before the majority of you jump down my throat and call me just a troll who doesn't know what I'm talking about, let me explain this because, believe it or not, I do have a rationale for my dislike. For starters, John Mayer never really impressed me as a vocalist, particularly his range. He sounds very much like he's trying to imitate a softer post-grunge vocal technique, but the problem with singing in a hoarse, borderline rasp is that you do real damage to your vocal chords over time. And in comparison with most artists, he actually sounds better in his louder, higher range, when he's able to bring some energy to the table.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens, which leads to my second big problem with the guy: most of his music is mind-blowingly tedious. I've admitted a number of times that white guys with acoustic guitars aren't my thing, and John Mayer is one of the reasons why. While he's not a terrible guitarist, he's not exactly a virtuoso either and thus too often the melody lines of his songs sound very formulaic and similar to each other, which can make his albums get really boring really fast. This isn't helped by the fact that since he's limited his range thanks to his vocal delivery, his songs don't tend to modulate or grow or reach any sort of climax outside of a certain range of quiet reserve.

But on top of that, Mayer's hoarse delivery doesn't seem to lend itself well to truly emotional songs. Now I admit this might be a personal pet peeve (after all, I was informed that some people actually considered the emotions Luke Bryan conveyed were authentic), but to me there's a certain lack of 'closeness'. There always seems to be a certain guarded nature around Mayer's songs, that never really expose vulnerability, which immediately throws me off because it doesn't feel real. Place this in comparison with that sappy song from 2008 'Hey There Delilah' by The Plain White Ts. Now, I'll admit that song is clumsy, poorly written, and amateurishly performed, but it still manages to work for me better than the majority of John Mayer's discography because it feels genuine and sincere, emotions I have a hard time finding in Mayer's work.

Eventually, though, it all comes back to the songwriting, and I'll admit without shame that John Mayer is a much better songwriter than Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz. As I said, John Mayer has at least written songs I like ('Waiting On The World To Change' and 'Say'), but he's also written a whole ton of crap that doesn't hold up nearly as well. Part of the problem seems to be a serious lack of humour, as John Mayer delivers all of his songs with as much somber earnestness as his voice can allow. And I'll admit, at points it kind of works and I completely understand why so many people have fallen for this guy over the past decade - people respond well to that sort of thing.

But here's my sticking point: I don't buy John Mayer's sincerity in the slightest. Too often in his songs he paints himself as the sadsack loner who's just looking to serenade a girl with his guitar and oh-so-clever songwriting (most of which isn't nearly as clever as it likes to think it is). And really, that starts to come across as more than a little disingenuous when you discover that he's dated Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jessica Simpson, Minka Kelly, Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift, and now Katy Perry. And then coupled with that infamous Playboy interview in 2010 (which he attempted to brush off by saying he was just trying to be 'funny' before apologizing) and the scathing direct assault Taylor Swift launched with 'Dear John', it's hard to believe Mayer's attempts to sound romantic anymore. And yes, I will agree that Mayer is a better technical songwriter than Taylor Swift, but 'Dear John' at least sounds emotionally authentic and does a fairly apt job and describing who John Mayer really is behind the artifice. 

All of this comes together to paint an interesting, if unappealing, picture of John Mayer, reminiscent of that douchebag you meet in college who woos girls by strumming on his acoustic guitar (and is basically asking for a recreation of Animal House). And sure, I understand that's not the image he's trying to put forward of himself when he presents his material, but it's the same problem I have with Chris Brown: I can no longer separate the artist persona from the public persona in my mind, mostly because elements of said art only seem to reinforce that image!

But all of that being said, I do appreciate that John Mayer is at least trying to repair his image. I'll admit that his previous album Born And Raised was a little too self-aggrandizing, but maybe that was just a necessary transitory step. And hell, I've been surprised by acoustic acts earlier this year, maybe I'll get lucky twice. So how does John Mayer's new album Paradise Valley turn out?

Okay, I'm going to try as hard as I can not to dwell on my own personal pet peeves related to John Mayer and try to review it just on the merits of his songwriting and music. Forget my dislike for the fact that he doesn't seem to care at all about his delivery on this album and barely seems to be trying in the slightest - no, I'm just going to focus on the instrumentation, production, and songwriting (you all have no idea how easy I'm taking it on this guy - if you've seen my other videos, you'll know).

Well, if I'm going to be bluntly honest, I'm not impressed by the instrumentation or production, particularly considering that Mayer seems to be moving towards a twangier, more country/folk direction in his music in comparison the acoustic singer-songwriter material of his earlier career, a path he already started on Born And Raised. And I'll give him this, most of his hooks are competent enough - I don't think I'll ever be a fan of Mayer as a guitarist, but he doesn't embarrass himself here and there is a bit more instrumental diversity. Unfortunately, we tend to lose of a lot that instrumental texture during production - none of the guitar or piano or other instruments really pop or develop flavour, and the watered down saxophone on the opening track 'Wildfire' was a real disappointment. In this case, I wouldn't even call this Mayer's fault, because he's clearly trying to bring some energy across in his instrumentation, and his production is completely handicapping that. 

But of course I get the reason why the production was done this way: to place 100% of the audience's attention of John Mayer's songwriting. After all, if you minimalize or deemphasize elements of art, you're deliberately doing so to draw attention to something else deemed more important. So, in a bit of a change of pace for me, what I'm going to do is go through each song on John Mayer's Paradise Valley and only talk about the songwriting:

1. 'Wildfire' - a typical summer love song very much in the country tradition. Basically, Mayer is trying to serenade the girl in question by saying this summer could lead to everlasting love, playing off their natural chemistry describes as a 'wildfire'. Okay, decent enough, but hasn't it been the point of summer love songs that love in this season is wild, passionate, and short? Hell, I think Mayer even uses this very cliche later on the album... 

Also, does it make nobody else uncomfortable he used the line 'I got a rock from the river in my medicine bag / magpie feather in his medicine bag'? Putting aside cultural sensitivities here, magpies are traditionally birds known for stealing, so is Mayer looking to imply he stole somebody's girlfriend? If not, why are they in this song? Still, the song's inoffensive enough.

2. 'Dear Marie' - ah, a song harkening back to a high school crush that he still has a thing for, even though she has a family. Okay, that can be tragic... so why are there lines like 'From time to time, I'll go looking for your photograph online'? I know we live in the age of Facebook stalking, but doesn't this read a little creepy to you, considering this girl and Mayer used to have a thing when they were fifteen? Shouldn't he have moved on by now?

3. 'Waiting On The Day' - okay, basic song talking about how John Mayer is waiting for a certain woman to come back into his life when they become older... and then there's the line 'When that voice comes to say / That it's not wrong what you did for just a kid'. 

So let me get this straight - John Mayer was apparently used by some woman for a pregnancy, and he's convinced that at some point in his life, he'll consider that a good thing and they'll settle down together? How, outside of the most hackneyed romantic comedies, is that anywhere close to actually believable (his condescending tone in this song doesn't help matters either)?

4. 'Paper Doll' - the song reportedly directed as a response to Taylor Swift's 'Dear John', and it basically plays out as Mayer appropriating insults Taylor slung to throw right back at her, plus more, accusing her of shallowness, materialism, vapidity, a false image of purity (the references to 'angel wings'), and the fact that there'll always be someone there to help her when she stumbles. Now, putting aside whether or not I agree or disagree with these various attacks, I will admit the song is better paced than 'Dear John' - but I question why this song even exists. Dude, have some class and dignity, nobody would remember that song in a few years if you had just ignored it. If Mayer was looking to come across as mature, he definitely blows it here.

5. 'Call Me The Breeze' - a country road song where John Mayer just keeps moving on, wherever the wind might take him. It's a bit like a watered down version of the old 1961 classic 'The Wanderer' by Dion, and as such, it doesn't bug me all that much.

6. 'Who You Love' - ah, the love song featuring Katy Perry. I'll give props for the improvement to Perry's delivery, but if we're looking for a dopier, shallower love song, I'd be hard-pressed to find one. The lyrics say 'You love who you love' - for a chorus, it's a circular statement and an awfully meaningless one at that. Also, maybe it's just me, but I find it a bit awkward that Perry seems to be defending Mayer on this track with lines like 'Some have said his heart is too hot to hold' - which seems to run counter to Mayer's own persona, at least from my point of view.

7. 'I Will Be Found (Lost At Sea)' - it's not a swashbuckling pirate song, if that's what you're thinking, but a hopeful plea using the metaphors of being lost and knowing that someday a girl will find him. You know, a song guaranteed to be appropriated across college campuses as faux-sensitive drivel that alternates between pitying and self-aggrandizing using some of the most overused metaphors in the book. Something could have been made out of this if the songwriting wasn't so incredibly basic and borderline-juvenile.

8. 'Wildfire (Interlude)' - this little bit was written and delivered by Frank Ocean with Mayer on guitar, and is unsurprisingly the best song of the album, full of lush description and superb delivery that paints a far more interesting picture than anything else on the album. Serious shame that it only lasts a minute and a half, though.

9. 'You're No One Til Someone Lets You Down' - oh look, a bro anthem to a friend who has been dumped, sung by the best friend who seems content to crap all over the girl and inform his friend that he was 'no one til someone lets you down'.

Okay, take a pause for a second. First of all, I get the sentiment, but still a terrible way to frame it, particularly when directed to a friend. And what are you insinuating here, Mayer, that people in stable, loving relationships aren't worth anything? With lines like 'There's so much to adore in a heart that is blue', are you implying that misery is attractive? Because, speaking from experience, the whole 'tortured soul' thing might be superficially attractive for a time, but it wears out its welcome fast.

10. 'Badge And Gun' - I'm sorry, are you kidding me? Is John Mayer really trying to sound like a tough guy, soldiering on out into the cold to reclaim his career and and his purpose, and doing so through police metaphors delivered with complete country seriousness?

Mayer, you're not a policeman, your music isn't a public service, and you might be one of the wimpiest singer-songwriters who have ever performed - there was no way in hell this was going to sound remotely convincing to anyone.

11. 'On The Way Home' - the song that concludes the album, and implies the fleeting summer romance has ended - wait, doesn't that completely fly in the face of the theme of the first song of the album? But seriously, though I think the lyrics are basic, this is easily the second-best song on the album, with some witty and heartfelt songwriting. Although one major problem, Mayer: the second you imply that a relationship/sex with you is 'a little bit of a Heaven', I find it extremely hard to buy into anything you say.

So there you have it. Every single song, and I think I gave all eleven more than a fair shot. And as I said, there were a few that were genuinely good. But all of that being said, all of my previous complaints are still more than valid. I get why people like John Mayer, I really do, but here's the point that must be made: as with most people, it is nearly impossible for me to separate John Mayer the man from John Mayer the artist, particularly when there are bits included in his songs that address said events and people from his past. To ignore artistic intent and the reasons behind why he wrote these songs go against everything I stand for as a critic, and I'm sick of dancing around this issue.

So, to bring this to a swift conclusion, John Mayer's Paradise Valley is a flat, vapid, sloppily written album, delivered with little-to-no energy and passion. Even putting aside John Mayer's status as an contemptible human being, this album lacks ambition and feels utterly inessential. I don't buy into Mayer's emotional authenticity (even on a love song with his girlfriend) because he lacks the emotional range to deliver it effectively, and his lyrics toe the line between blandly simplistic and highly questionable.

Even by the low, low standards I hold John Mayer, this is not a good album. In fact, it kind of sucks. Skip it.

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