Street Sounds: John Mayer gets serious

Forget the tabloids and his lothario reputation, John Mayer gets down to the art of making music on his new album, Paradise Valley.

On Paradise Valley, the album named for his Montana home, John Mayer wisely calls the tune on Call Me the Breeze, the old JJ Cale warhorse.

For a song done by everyone from Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and thousands of bar bands, Mayer makes it work. He skirts the obvious clichés and goes for the jugular with taste, restraint and confidence.

It fits with Mayer’s wandering musical spirit as he continues on a quiet roots-driven road; another few miles down from his last album.

Mayer’s musical DNA is partly acoustic, although the early frat boy pop has now shifted into the Americana, folk, country-rock and ballads that fill up this album. Paradise Valley is decidedly mellow but the friendly mood and lyrical musicianship supply the low-key burn that can’t be denied.

In Dear Marie, Mayer’s vocal carries off the task of looking back at a youthful sweetheart with aplomb, no easy task. He gets you on his side, agreeing with the wistful, world weary flashback.  There’s a spot in a recording where the fake is obvious and insincerity glares through. There’s none of that here – the writing is candid and the performances are poignant and finely nuanced.

Mayer’s musical nomadism makes sense as an instrumentalist: he’s digging for expression and hits hints of The Beatles, Paul Simon, and the Allman Brothers. His jazzy melodicism lifts up the low-key ballads (Paper Doll, I Will Be Found {Lost at Sea}) to soul searching songs. His guitar playing is fresh and original, keeping free of clichés. His clean sound is his stamp, and he’s developed an identity that’s not based on the usual rock posturing.

Having ducked the tabloids, Katy Perry ditches cartoon pop for a winsome duet with Mayer on Who You Love, sounding like a serious singer with something to say. Frank Ocean makes an appearance on an interesting sound snippet called Wildfire. These don’t sound like the usual space-filling features and are in key with the album’s mood.

Mayer’s inclination for quiet songs gets another layer of introspection with this album, and the rustic setting fits the songs naturally.

Dean Gordon-Smith is The Morning Star’s longtime music reviewer.