Review Summary: Contractually obligated.
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that one of life's universal pleasures is a well-deserved vacation. Whether you're traveling down the sunbathed roads of coastal California or enjoying the frosted splendor of Colorado's snow-capped vistas, there's an undeniable excitement in leaving the daily grind of everyday life behind. It's telling, then, that the prairie Mayer has surrounded himself with on the album's cover seems so bleak and desolate. The sky, on any other day such a radiant blue, is obscured by clouds – grey and dead. Mayer's only companion on this unfortunate journey is a dog, desperately looking up at its master, pleading the unthinkable: can we leave yet? Paradise Valley's cruelest joke is that the dog is in the same situation as Mayer's audience, trapped in that miserable, endless expanse with nothing but the smell of rain for company. Surely, this can't be the vacation we signed on for. But it gets worse. Behind that super-imposed image on the cover is the disheartening reality that Mayer isn't even here, and that's Paradise Valley’s deathblow. Mayer hasn't just created the worst album of his career, he's forgotten to even show up for it.
Paradise Valley ventures even deeper into the rustic, pastoral aesthetic of the American heartland than its predecessor, Born and Raised, but unlike that record, it lacks the excitement of exploring new musical frontiers and a convincing, passionate performance. There’s certainly nothing new in the saloon-stomp album opener “Wildfire.” Rather than exemplify Mayer’s penchant for striking pop-gold, the track feels more like a “Country Hit 101” checklist that checks every mark with pinpoint precision. As an opener, it’s a mildly catchy but ultimately useless exercise that, unfortunately, sets the tone for what’s to come. “Waitin’ On The Day” is appropriately relaxing with its campfire acoustics, but Mayer’s colorless vocal delivery sabotages the song of any impact. Not even the guitar solo, typically one of Mayer’s strengths, can muster enough excitement to keep the track from feeling like deadwood. While Mayer's companion ole' Sparky may have realized the parallels between his master and that empty, lifeless sky, the singer seems utterly oblivious, and just like Sparky we're begging to head back home.
Home, in spite of its day-in, day-out routine doesn’t sound so bad when weighed against the turns in Mayer’s lyricism. On prior releases, Mayer’s charisma and songwriting talent afforded him the ability to sell lines riddled with cliché, but lyrics such as “I'm a little lost at sea / I'm a little birdie in a big ole tree” aren't just poor craftsmanship; they're the signs of an artist who's lost conviction in anything but the expectation that he's supposed to release another record. Whereas tracks such as the brilliant Stop This Train and Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey carried considerable emotional payload in their lyrics, it’s nearly impossible to find the same investment anywhere on Paradise Valley. Elsewhere, Mayer delivers lines such as “You look fine, fine, fine / Put your feet up next to mine / We can watch that water line / Get higher and higher” with a Southern swagger that would almost be passable if it wasn't for the mind-numbing banality of it all. Throughout the record, it's abundantly clear that Mayer's lyricism hasn't just nosedived; it's shot straight into the Bermuda Triangle. Lost at sea, indeed.
Maybe that’s where Mayer’s been this whole time – adrift among the waves. It’s certainly a believable alibi. How else could the near-intrigue of “Call Me The Breeze,” whose guitar-work seems primed to explode in an exhilarating climax, cut off before Mayer can pay dividends on the solo he’d worked so hard to build? The answer is likely the same reason the track is cut short in favor of a shallow duet with Katy Perry, whose juvenile giggle brings the track to a devastatingly stupid conclusion. That’s the story of Paradise Valley in a nutshell; it’s a series of inoffensive songwriting decisions undercut by an equal number of idiotic missteps. In one of the most damning lines he's ever put to pen, Mayer admits “I'm a little lost at sea.” Sadly, he's right. And if Paradise Valley is any indication, then it might be best to hold the life jacket and toss the cinder block.