The cover of John Mayer's new album, "Paradise Valley." (Columbia Records )
Close your eyes. Erase your mind. Forget about Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and the various extracurricular activities that have hobbled singer-guitarist-romantic John Mayer’s reputation off the playing field. Breathe, and think about the guitar while inhaling fresh air and electrified guitar licks. As a Wyoming wind blows through your hair, imagine that the John Mayer Cruise never happened.
For many -- but by no means all -- such a Mayer reboot is necessary. Doing so in earnest before popping on his new album, "Paradise Valley," will offer payback for those yearning for peaceful, well-imagined guitar rock as earlier crafted by bands including the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Bros., the Grateful Dead and “Nashville Skyline”-era Bob Dylan. The guy’s apologized for his past media indulgences, and “Paradise Valley” makes a strong case that those of us overly annoyed should let it go.
Eleven songs that hit the mark where last year’s overwrought "Born and Raised" mostly missed, “Paradise Valley” is a more lyrically restrained and less generically reflective affair. And musically, it’s bigger, more accomplished and more approachable.
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At its best, as on “Dear Marie,” Mayer acknowledges his fame with a measure of embarrassment in a musical letter to a former high school sweetheart. (He even confesses to searching for her online.) Opener “Wildfire” will have fans of Little Feat and the Dead giddy. And the mid-album interlude of “Wildfire” features a gorgeous turn by vocalist Frank Ocean, who conjures a striking image of a woman jumping from the Eiffel Tower while Mayer harmonizes. The closer, “On the Way Home,” describes the return home after what seems like a pretty awesome summer vacation.
Musically, Mayer has seldom sounded more relaxed, and has rarely written guitar works as elastic and forgiving. “Who You Love” has the feel of an old soul classic, and producer Don Was records it with a claustrophobic tightness. Featuring pedal steel, a nearly liquid Mayer guitar strum and an impressive duet with a surprisingly real-sounding Perry, the song shows an artist both relaxed and well-practiced. The man’s fingers have seldom seemed so nimble.
That doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes have to roll your eyes. “I’m a little lost at sea/I’m a little birdy in a big old tree,” he sings on the piano ballad “I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea),” a song whose telegraphed rhymes and monochromatic vocal offer ample ammo for critics. Overall too, there are a few too many Edward Sharpe-suggestive sing-along "ooh-ooh's" for my taste. “Badge and Gun” feels like it was written while he was reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy,” and imagines a renegade cowboy heading away. It even features percussion that suggests a horse clomping down a dirt road. Ouch.
Regardless, Mayer the musician is in charge here, and he keeps his peacocking in check throughout “Paradise Valley.” The best part: When he does reveal his instrumental flair, he does so as someone whose natural-born skill warrants the display.
Three stars (out of four)
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