Mayer’s latest effort, Paradise Valley (out ), could be seen as a companion piece to the dusty back roads of Born And Raised. It’s a record that allows his melancholic visions to be grounded in cautious optimism, brimming with twangy mid-tempo numbers, shuffling percussion and a big sky expansiveness that’s a testament to the inspiration he has found in his new home outside of Bozeman, Montana. But while it does seem Mayer has fully embraced the nostalgic idea of the easygoing, rootsy American West and country music — just look at him pulling a Bob Dylan/Johnny Depp (ugh) shaman thing on the album’s cover — there remains a feeling of inert cultural tourism.
Where other country/blues revivalists have attempted to stake out their own little corners of their favorite genres while highlighting the thrilling strains and themes of the music that interest them most (like the aching American mythics of troubadour M. Ward, or Jack White’s snarling guitar tributes to early rock and roll), all Mayer can do is graft a technically proficient, taupe-colored adult-contempo on top of the kind of wistful Americana rock that usually possesses chasms of emotional turmoil.
Take, for instance, the honky-tonk sing-along strut of second single “Wildfire,” or the road running ballad “On The Way Home.” Both tracks are excellently crafted — almost too perfectly destined to soundtrack the end credits of romantic comedies — and showcase Mayer’s rubbery guitar work and knack for building billowy, serpentine harmonies. But digging deeper into the lyrical themes, particularly in “On the Way Home,” the lyrics trade in subtlety for greeting card platitudes, most evident in the chorus: “But just remember on the way home / That you were never meant to feel alone / It takes a little while, but you’d be fine / Another good time coming down the line.”
Lead single “Paper Doll” is an earwormy, whisper quiet ballad — supposedly about Mayer’s ex Taylor Swift — that plays closer to twangy jam bands with noodly Phish-like guitar work and brushing percussive work. The track is deceptively acidic with some relatively backhanded lyrics that could be mistaken for nuanced if they weren’t high-profile digs at a famous ex: “You’re like 22 girls in one / And none of them know what they’re runnin’ from / Was it just too far to fall / For a little paper doll.”
But the album’s most interesting moment, obviously (and especially in connection to “Paper Doll”), comes on the candid Katy Perry reconciliation/promise ring of a duet “Who You Love.” Granted, it’s a very timidly composed song, replete with small guitar licks and sleepy horns, like an attempt at a modernized version of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Island in the Stream.” But there’s a charming, easy-going happiness that holds the gooey center together. And honestly, given Mayer’s history, “Who You Love” could be the sonic equivalent of a hastily arranged couple’s tattoo, as he pledges that “I’m not running anymore / ‘Cause I’ve fought against it hard enough before.” Perry’s lyrics, however, frame her relationship with Mayer as an accepting endgame, knowingly referencing his libertine past and coming to terms with it: “And some have said his heart’s too hot to hold /And it takes a little time / But you should see him when he shines / You never want to let that feeling go.”
Yes, it’s a little corny, but it comes on an album that Mayer seems fully willing to let fly with his saccharine tendencies instead of really laying bare his personal demons. In the end, that’s probably a good thing. Mayer has never been known to really plumb the deepest depths with his emotional songwriting, and now, with his country-fried aesthetic firmly intact on Paradise Valley, he can allow the occasional moments of wistful melancholy to haunt the edges of his music rather than engulf it.
Pops Like: Room For Squares if it were recorded on a ranch with no running water in Montana.
Idolator Score: 3/5
— Patrick Bowman