John Mayer has become so controversial lately that the disturbing issues hurled against him—concerning his tabloid-fodder relationships with Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift, Jessica Simpson and Katy Perry, as well as those very revealing interviews with Playboy and Rolling Stone magazines—have distracted his followers. They have intended to overlook the otherwise fascinating evolution of his music, from acoustic pop and blues to folk and country, which began with last year’s underwhelming “Born and Raised.”
But, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter has always been hard to pin down—even as a youngster. In his early teens, his excessive fascination for guitar-playing drove his parents to take him to a psychiatrist twice —though, years later, he would explain that it was the contentious nature of their marriage that led him to “disappear and create a world I could believe in.”
The songwriter in Mayer was born after he was diagnosed with cardiac dysrhythmia and, shortly thereafter, “began suffering from panic attacks, and living with the fear of entering a mental institution.”
It’s this treasure trove of life lessons that informs his music—as instructively evinced by his sixth studio album, the 11-track, folk-and-country-tinged “Paradise Valley,” which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 last week.
The introspective but light-hearted bent is a snug fit for Mayer’s latest recording. Take the carrier track, “Paper Doll,” his thinly veiled response to Taylor Swift’s rancorous and churlishly controversial “Dear John” tune, whose lyrics speak for themselves:
“Paper doll, come try it on/ Step out of that black chiffon/ Here’s a dress of gold and blue/ Sure was fun being good to you/ You’re like 22 girls in one/ And none of them knows what they’re running away from.” He writes lyrics that are revelatory without being mordant and inflammatory.
In “Who You Love,” his telling collaboration with Katy Perry, John addresses his image as an elusive Ladies’ Man: “My girl says she ain’t the one I saw coming/ Sometimes, I don’t know which way to go/ I tried to run before, but I’m not running anymore/ Because I fought against it hard enough to know/ That you’ll love who you love.” The single is also a showcase for Perry’s gentler, more evocative trills.
“Badge and Gone” and “I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea)” capture the singer’s itinerant romantic bohemianism: “I’m a runaway train/ I’m a feather in a hurricane/ It’s a long, grey game/ But, maybe that’s a good thing/ ‘Cause I will be found/ So, I’ll keep running till my run is gone.” But, in the stirring “Dear Marie,” he sings about an old girlfriend and wistfully intones, “Yeah, I got that dream, but you got yourself a family.”
There are also tunes music lovers can dance to: The second single, “Wildfire,” and the bluesy JJ Cale cover, “Call Me the Breeze,” bask in the rhythmic allure and perky, honky-tonk vibe of their catchy country patter!