MUSIC BY JOHN MAYER
NOTE: The album releases on the 20th of August, 2013. Click here to listen to a free iTunes stream, which is where I caught the whole album as well - thrice.
In a realm far, far away, I had once argued for artistic merit against personal significance. The case in point was a Lars Von Trier film called ‘Melancholia’. Now, there is no question that ‘Melancholia’ has as much artistic merit as any other Lars Von Trier film might have had. It was pitch-perfect in what it promised to be. It was insufferable in the fact that it was a boring, depressing experience in the name of artistry. But then ‘Melancholia’ must have been incredibly significant to its cast and crew. Kirsten Dunst, its lead, and Von Trier had both gotten out of chronic depression at the onset of the film. While in its making and reception both of them would have found redemption, one cannot say the same of the viewer who finds no part to play in the creative process.
Likewise, it is becoming an increasingly strange experience to listen to a John Mayer record. In all his experiments with sounds and techniques, the autobiographical tone still remains. And we watch as it becomes more pronounced with each new record. But if there is one thing that could be said about John it is that he has always managed to strike a balance between the man he is and the music he makes. With ‘Paradise Valley’, however, I see the man outdo his music, which says a lot about the direction in which he is headed; where his music is personal and asks for some affiliation in the listener for it to be palatable.
Why I say this is also driven by a need to establish that I come from that kind of affiliation where John Mayer is concerned. It is a territory where all criticism becomes problematic. It is a problem of proximity, of familiarity, of being able to second-guess what could have gone behind having written that song or that line in that song that might sound out of place, but you have a vague idea on why it might have been put there. Much of John Mayer’s music seems to develop from such privileged information that almost seems to ask the listener to be informed of his social and personal life.
To elucidate a little, John Mayer is a singer-songwriter who has had his evolutionary phases in musicianship. There was the boy with the guitar who made the household album ‘Room for Squares’. There was the thirsting young man who talked ‘Heavier Things’ soon after. He then ‘Try!’ed his hand at the blues, peaking with ‘Continuum’ where he seemed to hit the sweet spot no matter what he played. It would not be an overstatement to say that he had the same kind of luck with women outside of his music. Fame brought some notoriety along with it. Between petty controversies he had pretty much brewed for himself, John released the underwhelming ‘Battle Studies’.
It is important to note that while he does ‘spread it thin’ once in a while where his public image is concerned, there has been no compromise on his music. If it was fascination that took him to the blues in the first place, an ailing heart had him find it again as he strung together what one could call his most important album, three years after the ‘Battle Studies’ debacle (which still went platinum). ‘Born and Raised’, released in 2012, had a changed man. The outspoken troublemaker had been silenced, both figuratively and literally, with only his music to speak with. To add to a bad name earned was a recurring throat condition that would ensure he would stay out of action for two whole years.
‘Born and Raised’ was no ‘Continuum’, but it is perhaps that very detail that is comforting. The John of now, thirty five years and a few screw-ups past, is a much more nuanced performer than the John of then, a twenty nine year old guitar sensation. In solitude, he discovered simplicity. He took his music, stripped it bare; he focused on the basics. Say what you need to say. Say nothing more. Say nothing less.
‘Paradise Valley’ comes a year after ‘Born and Raised’ and is as close to it, musically. No two John Mayer records have resembled each other as much ‘Paradise Valley’ and ‘Born and Raised’ seem to. Does this signify a saturation on his evolutionary chart? It is safe to say one cannot tell, for we are in the business of making observations; not making claims. A more important question would be to ask what this means to the average listener: when a musician realizes he’s got no point to prove and turns the amp down a notch. Compositions have become simpler, yet more nuanced. His words aren’t too hard to fathom. The boy once spoke in code now has the straightest things to say. What other paradigm can a line like “you love who you love, who you love” come from? The duet with Katy Perry serves to speak for both parties on the sensationalized relationship the two of them share. She was the woman “he didn’t see coming.” He’s the ‘boy’ with “a heart that’s hard to hold.”
On the one hand, this makes for sweet confession. ‘Who you love’, in fact, closes with Katy Perry ad-libbing “oh, you’re the one I love”, after which she bursts into a giggle, which, interestingly, has been retained on the record. On the other hand, for John Mayer the semi-pop musician, this means a larger audience. It’s like you could almost hear him say “if you thought ‘Half of my Heart was a stretch, wait till you get a load of this!” Thus, we find ourselves in the strange territory between the man and his music.
There are many such songs in ‘Paradise Valley’ which appear to be of great personal significance, but have little to differentiate, say, from an existing song of his own, let alone contribute to musical innovation. John Mayer seems to have left it to the Frank Oceans of the world to mess around. He, on his part, has carved a niche for himself and is quite comfortable there. Music is no more a statement but a way of being, where the world, he finds, is a safe place to be. There is hope. He has found it. There is no reason to feel insecure.
‘Paradise Valley’ is the plot summary of a wanderer having found his way back home. If ‘Born and Raised’ began his journey of self-discovery, ‘Paradise Valley’ closes it. It is, however, an open-ended sort of closure that it achieves, which we have reason to believe is very much the intention. Even at his vengeful best, the most John Mayer can do is sound sorry. His ‘Paper Doll’ addresses someone who is “like twenty two girls in one,” none of whom knows what she’s running from, even as he writes for himself “Sometimes I don’t know which way to go/And I’ve tried to run before, but I’m not running anymore.” What he detests is a part of himself that he claims he’s made his peace with. And that is as much as he wishes for the listener as well; as much as he wishes for this elusive ‘Paper Doll’ of his.
Three songs compete for my pick of the album on an album where all songs seem to have found their rightful place. ‘Wildfire’ is most exciting of them all, probably the first time since ‘No Such Thing’ that John has gone for a clap-your-hands sort of anthem. Except he isn’t calling high-school students to mutiny, but for his woman to come shake a leg; a fair bait to offer yours. We then have his cover of the J.J. Cale song ‘Call me the Breeze’ – of which he manages as tight a cover as ‘Crossroads’ on ‘Battle Studies’. The third song is the prophetic ‘You’re No one till Someone lets you down’, a song that is ‘absolutely beautiful’ – a term David Gray used to describe ‘To Ramona’; a fitting term in this context as well, what with the kind of counsel John has to offer.
There is a line in ‘I Will be Found (Lost at Sea)’ where John compares himself to a ‘feather in a hurricane’. I was instantly reminded of Jack Dawson in ‘Titanic’ as he 'predicts' Dylan when he says “I’m just a tumbleweed, blowin’ in the wind.” The differences are clear. The winds are supposedly harder, the feather – lighter. But there is no denying that they are saying the same thing: like there is no denying that ‘Paradise Valley’ is an epitome of the ease with which John Mayer expresses himself – musically, lyrically; vocally.