Matthew Friedberger (the Fiery Furnaces) Talks John Mayer’s Paradise Valley

I won't argue it, I'll just assume: John Mayer is a mainstream guy, as I might have even seen him quoted as saying. The effectiveness of his...

People often ask, “Are there ever negative pieces in the Talkhouse?” There sure are, and we figured it was time for a week’s worth of outstanding pans. It does take a little gumption to knock the work of one of your peers in such a high-profile forum, but plenty of Talkhouse writers have registered their displeasure. As ever, though, they do so from a musician’s perspective, a rare and very valuable point of view. Best of all, the pieces come from a place of respect… usually. But we’ll let you decide.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music

I won’t argue it, I’ll just assume: John Mayer is a mainstream guy, as I might have even seen him quoted as saying. The effectiveness of his activities is tied to the existence and continued efficaciousness of such a category. To ensure his status as such he’s even gone so far as to aggressively court proper tabloid celebrity. It might be a stretch ascribing to him direct intention in this regard, but unless reality TV Texans and second-generation soap opera/sitcom starlets really are the most desirable women in the world, it looks to be the case. This is relevant as, from a certain point of view, even such extraordinarily popular songwriter-performers as Dave Matthews or Jimmy Buffett are not mainstream artists but (merely?) Acts with Extremely Large Cults. Tabloid celebrity, in addition to, but far more than, a few vocal turns on hip-hop tracks, certainly helps one remain a mainstream artist.

Of course, with that sort of celebrity the aim is to leave the crisis-addled center and head to the (paradoxically or not) privileged periphery. In other words: when one leaves that sort of life behind, when one has given up one gossip magazine-featured extremely famous singer girlfriend for none other than another gossip magazine-featured extremely famous singer girlfriend: those sorts of goings on might provide a terrific background story. And what’s in the background can rush to the foreground: whereby an especially even amazingly unprepossessing (I didn’t type “underwhelming” or “boring beyond all measure”) new album can seem like a substantial and humble bid for — no, let’s zoom ahead — result of karmic redemption, time served and insight gained.

But that’s a bit much. And I can’t believe any critic would be as dim and as deaf or as publicist-ridden to put such silliness in his or her notebook. Surely no arts section editor would ever be so cynical or so away on vacation as to allow an underling to try to sell that to people. Because no fan would ever buy such a story.

Mere surmise, Sir; very uncertain. But still. The problem with Paradise Valley is not anything to do with itself. (That’s not true. There are many problems with Paradise Valley itself: for instance, the title and what it implies. I realize it is the name of a real place to which Mr. Mayer has a charitable and one might surmise emotional connection. But trading in the Alley for the Valley, a rock musician of whatever commitment going country, replacing the tenor sax with the pedal steel, sidelining the Big Guy while celebrating the Big Sky, is pure B(ruce). S. and is to be obligatorily deplored. However since this isn’t the album that left the bright lights behind let’s let that lay. Another problem: the guitar solos. They are the most pleasant thing on the album — they must be. What else would be? The sufficiently sensitive yet miraculously masculine vocal stylings?)

Everything on this record— the songs, the playing, the production —attempts (what else could be the explanation?) to draw no attention to itself and thereby serve to frame and most flatteringly and affectingly present the personality of the Featured Performer, the Star of the Show, John Mayer — not only the idol of his fans but also their friend — the Singer. And yet Mr. Mayer sings as if he is merely — selflessly!— attempting to frame and most flatteringly and affectingly present the quality of the songs, the interest of the playing, and the suitability and professionalism of the production. This is a very clever game, and as Charles Barkley said once, zero plus zero still equals zero, perhaps some new type Zero-Musical Footprint green-friendly country-rock. (I originally typed rountry-cock. You probably guessed that.) I should in any case make sure to mention that after the famous lady guest singer did her bit in the name of a song I won’t mention, I was very happy to be listening to Mr. Mayer again. And still, the guitar playing. There were even two small segments of George Harrison-ish slide guitar; I cheered them. But in general: shouldn’t Mr. Mayer stop attempting to not upstage himself and… do something? Augment the composition? Add a dash of color? Contrast? Energy? I will suggest the obvious: why not full-blown Adrian Belew imitations? Shouldn’t he be your model? People are ready, Mr Mayer; you could do it. Yes, right in the middle of one of your songs.

Speaking of why don’t we do it in the middle, the greatest of all Popular Musicians had a phrase which I will now paraphrase by which he described what musicians attempting to be popular were doing: Intriguing with the Public. The pop musician attempts to intrigue with the public. Whether or not I (the critic) find his or her attempts intriguing can be marked Not Pertinent. The only thing that matters is whether or not the lovebirds make a date. But: the date must go well. The musician needn’t bring the Sacred Fire, but if one can’t light a cigarette, one shouldn’t blow out the candles. Surely Mr. Mayer knows the devastating distance that lies between sincerity and passion. And that the only thing worse than calculation is honesty. For in an intrigue, messieurs-dames, it most often proves to be both hurtful and boring.

Intriguing is not the same as romancing, obviously, but I can’t go on about that now. Now, the lyrics. A few things stick out. And here is another theory-as-to-rock-music current from when I was a child: only do what you can do well; have everything follow out from that (sad and) only-ness. That seems rather limiting. But it does have practical application: if you can only play one chord well, it might be best to write a song involving only that one chord; if you can come up with only one line you like, it might be best to have all the lyrics in the song be only that one line. If only the line “I’m a little birdie in a big ol’ tree” were the only line in the song “I Will Be Found,” that would have been wonderful. Meaning not that the only singing was when Mr. Mayer came to “I’m a lil’ birdy in a big ol’ tree” on his lyric sheet but: every other phrase in the lyric was replaced with “‘I ma! Lit L–brr! Deina be gold, chree” (or however you’d like to spell it). That would be a significant improvement. Maybe Mr. Mayer can do it that way live.

I’m sorry to be frank with you, but the recording of “I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea)” upsets me. The changes and tune are undistinguished. But not especially so, and there is nothing wrong with that; it’s the type of thing it’s meant to be. The lyrics are unpleasant, admittedly; the narrator’s humility— “I’m a little lost at sea/I’m a little birdie in a big ol’ tree”— lasts as long and sounds as serious as the lines take to sing and the tone seems to indicate; we immediately modulate to the unfortunate self-regard of “I will be found.” But that’s all right. No doubt the song is about a Mr. Mayer-like character— or nobody at all — who has been hanging round the sort of people for whom an old-fashioned faithful Christian optimism is indistinguishable from a triumphant narcissism. Anyway, the character is just sharing his story, his feelings, to inspire the rest of us, right? So that’s fine; no problem. But why no drum fill before the kit comes in? That’s madness. Is it supposed to be a surprise? I just hope there was some need for an impossible edit, and that you didn’t actually make a drummer do that, Mr. Mayer— that it’s your bass player or producer pecking away at a MIDI controller attached to Ultrabeat.

But now I come to the crux. Why, Mr. Mayer, do the vocals sound as they do? Why are they recorded and processed as they are? It’s fine — I suppose— that you don’t treat the vocals to sound as much as possible like Gary Brooker’s on “A Salty Dog.” Disappointing, but fine. But why do they have to sound like Jason Castro’s on his studio version of “Over the Rainbow”?  Why, oh why, can’t I understand? I can’t understand. And I’ll never believe your fans want it that way, Mr. Mayer.

Now straight to my favorite song on the record, “Dear Marie.” Somewhere between the Kinks’ “Two Sisters” and Kanye West’s “Welcome to Heartbreak,” anti-glamour pop song took a turn inward, and by the way, it’s lonely at the top. It might be better if the Unglamorous Ones in the song get to decide forthemselves that their simple or family life is worthwhile or even preferable, as in “Two Sisters.” Sensitive types might find it patronizing to be told that it’s so by the Stars Themselves, whether “up in first class” in “Welcome to Heartbreak” or in “a picture in a magazine” in “Dear Marie.” What do I know. But in this song is what I take to be the most notable thing on the record, exclamation mark. “From time to time I go lookin’ for your photograph online/From time to time I go lookin’ for your photograph online/But some kinda judge in Ohio’s all that I ever fin’.” But some kind of judge in Ohio’s all that I ever find? Not only does it have too many syllables to fit (which would be boring, so thankfully it doesn’t) into the allotted time, but it’s too good to be true. Is it true? As a German writer once asked about a speech in Coriolanus: Where did he find that? I’d like to know. Then, towards the end of the song, the drummer starts hitting the snare and Mr. Mayer sings a variety of “oh”s. By doing this I think he must be imitating a particular band, but it’s too unpleasant a notion to speculate further.

I’ll hurry up now and get back to my main point, i.e., the problem with Paradise Valley is not anything to do with itself. The problem with Paradise Valley has to do with its periphery. The roots, singer-songwriter or alt-country albums that should provide the eccentric contradistinction, if not competition, to Paradise Valley do no such thing. They are no such thing; other folks’ songwriting, playing, production is not more idiosyncratic in any meaningful way. Or frivolous way: I wouldn’t put it this way, but someone else might: the alternatives to Paradise Valley are pretty much as lame as Paradise Valley. (Of course, I am not talking about a record or performer that you like.) That screws up John Mayer. How can he be a proper mainstream artist if the indie people, if the people who are meant to be eccentric in relation to him, have the same approach and get much the same results? It’s a disaster.

I’m generalizing and I’m not necessarily familiar with the lay of the land. I do know, though, that any sort of “classicism” is a disaster for rock music. It’s cretinism complete, and I don’t mean the sort celebrated in “Cretin Hop.”  And I love classic rock very much, or most of all.

But speaking of being a non-conformist Art/Pop star by making conformist art-pop, if a Lady Gaga merch counter is as interesting an exposition as the Lorna Simpson show now on view at the Jeu de Paume,  as I assume Lady Gaga would insist, then why isn’t a John Mayer merch set-up just as, or even more, rich etc.? A merch man to Mr. Mayer is just as much a qualified curator as one to Lady Gaga.

If that’s true, then our problems are solved. If Mr. Mayer can reasonably be classed as a challenging artist given the tenor of the times and considering the sum of his activities, then his singer-songwriter not-eccentric non-alternatives can, in their different ways, be also so classed. If Mr. Mayer’s musical (relative or relevant) antipodes can be classed once more as eccentric artists, they can again or at last function in necessary antipodal fashion. And John Mayer can be a mainstream artist. Specialization and centralization can hold hands again.

It is true that out of context — if you don’t know how this music is supposed to work and why it might be that way — Paradise Valley and what I propose as its periphery don’t even manage to be boring. Or, paying attention to other things, or not paying attention at all, or using your imagination, they might sound as bizarre as you like. One might object that that’ s irrelevant — one does know why the music sounds that way and how it is supposed to work. But I don’t think that’s the case; the individual listener is constantly losing the thread or slipping the leash; one might be trying to use a given record for one’s own purposes and at the same time having that record used against one.

Well, I should just leave it at that. I will say this, and I don’t mean to be pushy about it: I think “out of context” is a normal way of listening to things, not a special way. Without being able to take the record out of context — in other words, listen to it normally — I would think that Paradise Valley (or something I think that’s like it) has no energy and no personality, and has neither for no good reason. It would be like a roadside statue of Hermes with the face and the phallus cut off. It would be very bad luck.

And so thank goodness I don’t hear it that way. A last word about specialization and centralization. We want phalanstery-building, but we’re getting rural collectivization. To keep terms nice and red, we think we’re letting 100 flowers bloom, but we’re already making the great leap forward.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Matthew Friedberger, a Chicagoan born in 1972, is unemployed. He has no degrees or credentials of any kind.  He is, therefore and however, a songwriter and composer and has released 10 solo records in the last two years. His next work, Again with the Greatest Hits Live in the Studio, will appear shortly. He lives in France.