John Mayer has a big mouth. Even the bass in the Yellowstone River think so. If the words “sexual napalm” mean anything to you, the talented but occasionally jerky Mayer is to blame. When his outrageous disclosures in a quickly infamous 2010 Playboy interview drew much scorn, he retreated wounded from the backlash to Paradise Valley, Mont., where the sky is big and the fishing is good.
His hooks have been in the water to the tune of a pair of singer-songwriter albums and a celebrity catch of the day, new friend Katy Perry. Mayer has also cultivated a folksy new image, that of a repentant, back-to-the-garden rock star with a floppy hat and a dog either named Boo or Photo Prop, as seen on the cover art of his reflective, melodically friendly new album Paradise Valley.
The autobiographical disc, which follows 2012’s folk-rocking Born and Raised, is tuneful – not in the pop-radio sense, but in the sense that couples could comfortably make omelettes to it. The river that runs through the easy-going material is the tension involved with the question of whether to run or to stay – the fight or flight of everyday life. Footloose philosopher Kenny Loggins once sang that “running will never make you free.” Mayer isn’t as sure.
The song getting the most attention is Paper Doll, a light-FM response to Taylor Swift’s scathing Dear John. Where ex-girlfriend Swift’s effort was ham-handed, Mayer displays a lighter approach: “Cuz you’re like 22 girls in one, and none of them know what they’re running from.” This is a song-based game of tag, played publicly.
But this disc isn’t about Swift’s running, it’s about Mayer’s. On the album’s only cover song, he sees himself as free as the late J.J. Cale once did. “I got that green light baby, I got to keep moving on” is the sentiment of Call Me the Breeze.
By the way, Mayer has been called many things (including a tasty-licking guitarist), but “The Breeze” is not one of them.
On the trail-wagon blues of Badge and Gun, Mayer is a drifter of the high-plains kind: “This house is safe and warm, but I was made to chase the storm.”
Chase, one might ask, or create?
Like many tracks, On the Way Home features the warm styles of keyboardist Chuck Leavell and pedal-steel guitarist Paul Franklin. This one sounds like John Denver.
Pop star Perry is called upon for more than back rubs. She capably sings on Who You Love, a duet in the affecting manner of Ryan Adams that ruminates on unexpected things. Mayer never saw the demure Perry coming, just as a listener might find the track’s flugelhorn appearance a surprise.
The album’s takeaway is I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea), a slightly southern-fried winner in which our rambler vows to “keep running ’til my run is gone.” Mayer’s way seems to be the roundabout way, with the belief that nobody gets found unless they first get lost. We’ll see how that works out, down the road.