Oh, John Mayer. I wish I knew how to quit you.
There are few artists who force me to argue with myself the way Mayer does. This phenomenon goes all the way back to his first big single, “No Such Thing,” which I alternately admired for its naïve chutzpah and derided for… well, the same thing. Since then, every album has found me in the same conundrum – I like his work, and yet I know all the reasons I shouldn’t.
Start with the fact that Mayer is a prodigiously talented guitar player, and yet rarely uses that talent in the studio. Ever since “Daughters” soft-rocked the world, Mayer has emphasized his softer side, and that tends to be cloying and saccharine more often than not. Anyone who heard Try, his lone album with the John Mayer Trio, knows that this guy can play a mean blues lick and shred with the best of them. But he chooses not to – we get record after record filled with the likes of “Half of My Heart.” And I find myself constantly defending him against his own work.
Lately, he’s decided to be Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Man full time. On last year’s surprising Born and Raised, that shift worked for him – it was actually his first great record, thoroughly eschewing the energy of his live shows for a quiet, more reflective balm. It was a canny move, given his sleazy public image, but the album showed remarkable growth as an artist. I’m all for maturity, particularly if the results are honest and earned. Born and Raised sure sounded that way to me.
But now, just more than a year later, Mayer is back with his sixth album, Paradise Valley. And while I still like this more than I feel like I should, the whole thing sounds a lot more calculated this time out. Paradise is another quiet little record, 40 minutes of pleasant ditties and acoustic whispers, but like the front cover photograph, with its hat and blanket and dog and endless field, it feels a little forced. This should come off like a deepening, like another step down a path. Instead it feels like an attempt to replicate Born and Raised, with the edges sanded off.
Mayer again worked with legendary producer Don Was, and he gives this record a down-home sheen. Mayer’s guitar playing is typically swell, even on these restrained tunes, and he remains on just the right side of the Eric Clapton lite-FM divide. The solo on “Waitin’ on the Day,” for example, is probably a little loopier than the one Clapton would have laid down. (His version of JJ Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze,” however, may as well be ol’ Slowhand, so similar is the sound.) His voice is in fine shape, particularly considering his recent surgeries, and the whole record is sweet and professional.
Like a lot of Mayer’s work, though, it’s just a little too slick. “Paper Doll” lopes along on a clean guitar figure and some delicate playing reminiscent of Jerry Garcia, and while it’s all pleasant, it never comes alive. Current flame Katy Perry joins Mayer on “Who You Love,” a low-key breeze of a song about, well, loving who you love. (Lyrics were never Mayer’s strong suit.) And it’s fine – it’s pretty, and Mayer gets a few tasteful guitar licks in, and Perry doesn’t embarrass herself. The horn section is so subtle it’s almost inaudible. The whole thing works, but it doesn’t do much, and it’s forgettable. I can’t help liking it while it’s playing, though.
The second half gets more interesting, starting with the record’s best song, “I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea).” Built around a lightly-played piano, the song takes some interesting melodic detours, and Mayer even sells the line “I’m a little birdie in a big ol’ tree.” It even works up a head of steam, relatively speaking. Frank Ocean provides a puzzling interlude – a track that Mayer had nothing whatsoever to do with – and then the record ends with three simple, pretty songs, starting with the old-school country ditty “You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down.” The mood stays breezy right through to the end, the rustic “On the Way Home.”
There isn’t much here I don’t like, even though my more critical side is shouting at me the entire time. I acknowledge that “Dear Marie,” a trademark Mayer song that purports to be about someone else but is really about him, is kind of dickish – it’s about him remembering a childhood friend, and feeling bad about his own success when he sees she has a family. But I can’t help but smile when the climax arrives, the drums (moderately) kick up, the whoa-ohs start, and Mayer chimes in with his guitar. It’s calculated, but it works.
If there were an album to make me give up on John Mayer, I think Paradise Valley would be it. It’s the farthest he’s traveled from the fiery blues-rock I know he can deliver, and unlike last year’s sterling effort, this one feels less honest, more contrived, more like the sensitive kid who plays guitar to get chicks. And yet, here I am, listening again and still enjoying what I’m hearing. I don’t know what to tell you. I just don’t know how to quit him.
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Speaking of Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Man, here’s a new record from Travis.
As any longtime listener knows, there are actually two Scottish bands named Travis, both made up of the same four members. One of those bands is a loud Britpop act, with crashing guitars and a slightly punky attitude. The other is a dreamy acoustic act with soppy melodies and an overall “nice” feeling to it. One version of Travis is four nice guys who will bring you flowers. The other version is four lads who will stomp your flower garden for fun.
If you want to know which Travis you’re dealing with, just check the front cover. If the four members of the band are pictured from far away, and the band’s logo is angular, with the A and the V sloping into one another, you’re dealing with dreamy milquetoast Travis. And that’s what you’ll get on their seventh album, Where You Stand, their first in five years.
I used to like dreamy milquetoast Travis. Their breakthrough album The Man Who is still a gem, and The Invisible Band has its moments. But I honestly don’t remember anything about 2007’s The Boy With No Name, and this new one is just as forgettable. The sound is typical of this version of Travis, all strummy acoustics and chiming clean guitars, Fran Healy’s voice plaintive and pleading. The songs this time, though, are remarkably boring. You have to get to track seven, “A Different Room,” before you hear anything that stirs and soars like Travis used to.
Most of these tunes just glide right by without leaving any mark at all. “Reminder” starts with a whistle, but quickly devolves into a repetitive snore. The title track is the best part of the early going, with its ascending piano and guitar lines and its falsetto chorus, but it never lifts off, never does anything interesting. “Another Guy” is the nadir, a simplistic dirge that pivots on these lyrics: “I saw you with another guy, you can cry all you like but it won’t change a thing.” Charming. “New Shoes” is a pitiful stab at Gorillaz-style electro. Only “On My Wall” sports a pulse, but its jangly beat is overshadowed by the waves of boredom that surround it.
Where You Stand is a real shame. I enjoyed Healy’s solo album more than this, and I definitely prefer the more raucous Travis that made Ode to J Smith five years ago. I sincerely hope that Travis comes back soon, and wakes up this Travis.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.