*** (out of four)
John Mayer's new album "Paradise Valley" sounds like anything but paradise. As the singer-guitarist continues down the folk-rock path he took on his last album (2012's "Born and Raised"), "Paradise" finds the former All-Star douche as something of a reformed romantic. His soundscapes are sweetly arranged, and Mayer's voice, following his throat surgery, sounds as inviting as ever.
He still has a bit of a vindictive edge though, like the soft snipes towards (maybe/probably/hopefully) Taylor Swift on "Paper Doll": "You're like 22 girls in one/and none of them know what they're running from/was it just too far to fall?/for a little paper doll." It's a funny juxtaposition because "Doll," the lead single packed with fleeting guitar tugs, might otherwise be the loveliest song on the album.
Mayer does that a lot on "Paradise," patronizing someone else or himself for mistakes made or loves lost. Next to his remarkable technical ability, however, it's easy to miss that. He's always been a proficient musician, and on his second dance with folk- and blues-inspired material, he's found a comfortable intimacy between its roots and his alt-rock. It's probably why it's easy for him to be so honest.
With all the prettiness, the record can feel a little light at times, in need of some tension or effects. Veteran producer Don Was helps some, adding something like the salient flute and horn parts to "Who You Love," but there's not much of that. To a lesser degree, guests Katy Perry and Frank Ocean are welcome additions, but Perry's voice is a bit too warm for her cut, and Ocean's wonderful "Wildfire" doesn't fulfill its promise at just 88 seconds long.
Mayer's feet are warming up, but they're still kinda cold: "I'm a little lost at sea/I'm a little birdy in a big ol' tree," he sings on "I Will Be Found," another roots-inspired tune, this time from gospel. It's corny but gets a rise out of Mayer, unlike much of the album's meandering middle. That reflects where Mayer's head is at, and maybe both his music and his mind could benefit from a little more decisiveness.
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