Paradise Valley, John Mayer’s lightning-fast follow-up to 2012’s Born & Raised, finds the guitar-slinging troubadour still sifting through his life.
Sonically similar to Raised, which was recorded with producer Don Was (he returned for Valley), Mayer hasn’t forsaken the rustic ambience he embraced last year.
Yet, Valley departs from its predecessor in a few significant ways. Raised was, primarily, an introspective piece of work that functioned like a folk-rock mea culpa for a few years’ worth of ill-advised behavior.
Valley runs headlong into controversy and tabloid speculation, as Mayer splashes his alleged love life all over a pair of tracks. Paper Doll, the album’s lead single, is reportedly a barbed valentine to ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift, while Who You Love features a vocal cameo from Mayer’s on-again, off-again paramour Katy Perry. (“My boy ain’t the one I saw coming,” she purrs, a line that will doubtless set tongues wagging.)
Each, in their own way, sticks out like a sore thumb: Perry’s vocal gymnastics, in particular, are downright jarring on a record full of fulsome guitar licks. (To be fair, Frank Ocean’s brief appearance on Wildfire likewise jerks listeners out of the mellow, rootsy vibe.)
Still, Mayer mostly overcomes these peculiar choices and showcases some inspired guitar work, even if the melodies and moods begin to feel homogenous by record’s end ( Valley clocks in at a lean 40 minutes).
It’s disappointing that instead of biding his time and waiting until he had a batch of worthy songs, Mayer elected to rush out an album that feels like a bookend, a gathering up of odds and sods from his last project.
His eagerness likely stems from his long period of inaction, when he was sidelined with the vocal granuloma that nearly derailed his career. It’s understandable he would want to make up for lost time.
But Mayer is at his best when he has something to say — even if that something is “I’m sorry I was an outspoken jerk” — and records like Paradise Valley only serve to reinforce the notion Mayer is little more than a talented guitar player.
He can pen songs of startling sensitivity and insight, but this Valley, as scenic as it is, is woefully bereft of such material.