There is something about the song On the Way Home that makes it one of those tracks you can listen to over-and-over. A song about summer ending along with the relationships and adventures you had trigger memories of summer camp, road trips, college alumni reunion parties, and even summer flings. It is amazing how the last and probably will be most unplanned track off Mayer's new album has really captured the true essence of what his music has become. Mayer has finally transcended his poprock roots and truly erupted from his enigmatic cocoon as some sort of hazy-colored moth, searching for wherever the light is. This metaphor may seem awful elaborate, but listen to his lyrics and style now.
In Mayer's last album ("Born & Raised", previously reviewed October 2012), it was obvious that the boyhood influences of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Willie Nelson had really grabbed a hold of Mayer at a very peculiar part of his life. He had been so in the spotlight, eating up every moment of it and seemingly enjoying it all until a misunderstanding over a comment on race sent him and his relationships spiraling into dismay. He fled to the U.S. midwestern skyline and recorded an album that was meant to wash away the polish and trim that the cities had given him.
Now with Paradise Valley, Mayer returns from his musical hibernation and takes the road trip back home rather than out west. The album is linear, the first song called Wildfire, is about the start of a beautifully unexpected relationship that catches on as fast as North Eastern springs turn into summers. The tone of the album transitions to a colder set of lyrics as the summer wanes. Paradise Valley is a place for John Mayer and is somewhere he wants his listeners to travel with him to, and follow him home from. It is poetic as the songs transition into summer's end with On The Way Home.
The album is hauntingly similar to Born & Raised in many ways and to the inattentive ear may even seem repetitive. While B&R had a theme set in the road trip out to find oneself, Paradise Valley seems to be the adventure of losing yourself once you are there. It helps knowing that there is in fact a region in Southwestern Montana called Paradise Valley that is really a place for Mayer to lose himself. One of the album's most truly poignant songs Waitin' On the Day is a twangy, hearty, and soulful piece set around the hopefulness of being the person you had promised yourself and others you would turn out to be.
There is little left to be desired in Mayer's newest record. Paper Doll, one of the early singles off the album, is a bubbly song that lyrically is weaker than some of his other pieces and seems to serve as a potential response track to Taylor Swift's continuous heartbreak songs directed towards Mayer and her many other trampled hearts. It lacks the lyrical wit and candor that Paradise Valley seems to have nearly everywhere else and doesn't serve the record any favors. Remarkably, it does not appear to take away from the record either. It serves purely as a flat piece in comparison to the rest, though it probably is good for for some guitar solos at concerts.
The most noteworthy track off the record is You're No One 'til Someone Lets You Down which practically serves as a tribute to the Hank Williams Sr. era of country-western, blurred with the John Mayer knowledge in blues-history. A much appreciated twist that he is known to give just about everything. The song is a relinquishing of responsibility and guilt for a relationship's end and the general acceptance that you are best defined from the way you recover from pain. A great message, a great use of verse and the guitar is just perfectly Hank. This song is a true gem.
The album is certainly not for the mainstream masses, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if there is a unified revolt of radio stations who back away from even featuring the singles, let alone plugging the album. This record really has no place on contemporary, mainstream, radio, and I think John Mayer knows that. He made an album for music lovers, not just music listeners. The idea that Mayer has "gone soft" or "gone country" may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure; Mayer has "gone rogue." He is off the map in terms of mainstream tracking, even the hipsters may seem befuddled when they hear this stuff. He has re-embraced the country-blues/country-western sound that were the real grassroots of the genres he had dabbled in during his time in pop-culture's limelight. Though, as the album ends with the thoughtful track On the Way Home, it seems he may be inviting us to return to the big stages with him. Perhaps he is preparing for a return to the life of exposure now that he has spent time off the grid and appears to be rested up. As he says in his final lines in Paradise Valley, "A little bit of Heaven never hurt no one."