Review Summary: A lovely, laid-back mood piece which doesn't aspire to be anything more than the quiet gem that it is, Paradise Valley will be a go-to Summer record for many years to come.
As this writer sits in a warm oasis, digits finally thawing after a trek through the freezing conditions which seemingly the entire civilised world has recently been plunged into, the refrain of the opening track on Paradise Valley, ‘Wildfire,’ seems more and more like a distant memory of a happier, warmer, time – ‘a little bit of summer’s what the whole year’s all about.’ And if there was one mantra which I’d have to point to as encapsulating Mayer’s most recent record, that would surely be it; Paradise Valley is an album awash with the sounds of dappling sunlight and lapping waves, or a long open road as the sun sets over the hill. It’s certainly an album aimed more towards the middle months of the calendar, and since its August release it has been more and more depressing to listen to songs which were previously a soundtrack to shorts and t-shirt weather as I walk along in my winter coat. Nonetheless, Paradise Valley is a quietly excellent release regardless of the season, and, low-key as it is, manages to be one of Mayer’s best albums in years.
Opening with the pleasantly jangly riff of the aforementioned ‘Wildfire,’ Paradise Valley lays out its mission statement to be a laid-back jam of a record from the off, with Mayer’s now deservedly well-chronicled guitar mastery closing the track out in a breezy jam. ‘Dear Marie’ follows, with a simple verse-verse-verse song structure (Mayer himself mentioned his recent interest in this kind of simplicity following a period of obsessive Dylan listening) which belies its poignant lyrics and lyrical guitar solos. The album continues in a similarly low-key, laid-back manner, with few deviations from the kind of open road, summer afternoon mood which it sets up from its outset. That’s not to say it isn’t varied at all, however; surprises such as the piano-led ‘I Will Be Found,’ and Katy Perry’s unexpectedly central inclusion of single ‘Who You Love,’ keep the record moving along at a pleasantly bustling pace. Gone are the huge centrepieces which we may have been accustomed to from Mayer’s previous albums – there’s no ‘Edge of Desire’ or ‘A Face To Call Home’ to listen out for here, but that’s kind of the point of this album. Unplanned as it was following Mayer’s vocal hiatus, Paradise Valley could have turned out to be merely a collection of B-Sides left off of 2012’s somewhat underwhelming ‘Born & Raised,’ but instead we are left with this wonderfully quiet little album, full of quietly wonderful little songs.
When there is the occasional big ‘moment,’ though, Mayer really does let loose – the Mumford & Sons-esque singalong outro to ‘Dear Marie’ does feel a little calculated, but is still suitably anthemic and a pleasant surprise after the touching final lyrics. Final track ‘On the Way Home,’ too, toys with Mayer’s traditional and conventional song structures by throwing different section after different section at the listener, before culminating in a beautiful final, repeated mantra of ‘life ain’t short but it sure is small,’ to close out the album on a fittingly thoughtful note. Lyrically, this is one of Mayer’s best efforts – poetic treats pepper almost every track of the album, with lines such as ‘will you tie me tight in little strands of paradise?’ in ‘Waiting on the Day,’ and ‘Well I got my dream, but you got a family; I got my dream but I guess it got away from me’ from ‘Dear Marie’ making this album a surprisingly, and, of course, quietly depressed one lyrically at times, if not musically.
Mayer’s guitar work is on top form as ever here, and, thankfully, he’s less restrained than he was on last year’s ‘Born & Raised.’ His style has evolved to be more lyrical and slightly less steeped in blues licks of old, with bright Stratocaster-fuelled flourishes such as the solo on this review’s personal favourite track, ‘Paper Doll,’ and the magnificent outros on ‘Waiting on the Day,’ ‘Wildfire,’ and the unbelievably and understatedly cool J.J Cale cover ‘Call Me the Breeze,’ and more proving to be welcome highlights in the midst of most of the tracks on the album. Whilst Mayer might never quite reach the melodic heights of his solos on live album ‘Where The Light Is’ in the studio, this is certainly the closest any album of his has come to reproducing the magic we see on his tours within the confines of the studio.
That’s not to say that the album is without its faults, however; some more experimental moments, such as the entirety of Frank Ocean’s contribution ‘Wildfire II,’ – which falls almost completely flat despite some pleasant if lightweight imagery – and the unusual but ultimately uninspired bridge of ‘I Will Be Found’ – belie the fact that this album did have by far the least time invested in it out of any of Mayer’s previous records. These are the, commendably few, moments where the cracks of the songs’ brief gestation periods shine through, but thankfully there aren’t enough of these to truly mar the record in any meaningful way.
Overall, then, Paradise Valley is an incredibly welcome surprise not only in its quality, but also in its very existence; by all rights, we’d have been selfish to expect a new Mayer album by any earlier than 2015 after ‘Born & Raised’ dropping in 2012, but here we are with ‘Paradise Valley,’ a lush, mellow record which so endearingly refuses to aspire to be anything more than what it is – a lovely, laid-back mood piece which will be a welcome go-to record for many Summers to come.