Jason Mraz since bursting on the scene nearly a decade ago with Waiting for My Rocket to Come has built his career on being the cool, calm, straightforward and somewhat quirky cat to singer-songwriters like John Mayer. With each progressive release, he has reached more and more into cool and calm while adding more whimsy and uplifting material like the groundbreaking "Geek in the Pink" or the whimsical and introspective "Life Is Wonderful" from his 2005 effort Mr. A-Z.
All the elements that have made him one of the best singer-songwriters in the last 2 decades all come together with a heavy helping of that certain four letter word and a starkly new sonic feel in his new album Love Is a Four Letter Word. The beautifully arranged and executed 12-track effort was the result of nearly 3 years of perspective, soul searching, a few surprises and the ever so present theme of love.
The album begins with one of those few surprises with the multi-faceted "Freedom Song". The track really blasts out the boundaries of what people consider "singer-songwriter pop gospel", whatever that is. "Freedom" kicks off with a groovy, reggae-tinged beginning and then transitions into a horn-filled, bluesy feel for the rest of the track. If Mraz's intention was to set you up into a good mood for this album, he certainly does the trick right from the start with "Freedom Song".
The journey into feel-good and groovy territory furthers into the whimsical and somewhat idealistic "Living In The Moment" with the whimsy accentuated with that whistle at the start. It is such a laid-back track, you almost want whatever Mraz is having at this song, especially on this lyrical moment: “I let my past go past/and now I’m having more fun/I’m letting go of the thoughts that do not make me strong/and I believe this way can feel the same for everyone.” This song is so cool and calm, a hardcore Type-A personality may actually do exactly that!
The theme of love, as the album title can attest to begins with the next track, "The Woman I Love", a sort of virtual love letter, somewhat similar to Billy Joel's hit song "Just The Way You Are". Lyrics like "Another reason for me to keep holdin' on/I'm not attached to any way you're showing up/I'm just gonna love you like the woman I love" and the beginning "Maybe I annoy you with my choices/Well, you annoy me sometimes too with your voice/But that ain't enough for me/To move out and move on/I'm just gonna love you like the woman I love" definitely belie the tone.
Next track " I Won't Give Up" lyrically reads like a virtual down on the knee tune to save a relationship possibly gone off the tracks and may even feel spectacularly needy ("I won't give up on us/Even if the skies get rough/I'm giving you all my love/I'm still looking up/Still looking up"). however, under the weight of Mraz's sprightly vocals and the acoustic guitar-driven romantic start, the track is given a kind of redeeming quality that could make most subjects of this song give him a second, third, maybe even fourth chance. Don't be surprised that "I Won't Give Up" gets covered by singer-songwriters who write up songs in a similar style.
No Jason Mraz album would be complete, at least the last couple releases preceding without a song that dives into social commentary. The track "5/6" lyrically is a commentary on life with a brief but deep introspection in how to raise your kids ("Don’t dress up your children like dolls from your past/Or They’ll run from you madly, they'll never look back/And when they grow older, they’ll do just the same/The world’s a reflection of how children play). The song plays in a very interesting meter and shrouded in a jazz lounge type feel, which actually kind of mutes the rather biting but subtle lyrical commentary going on. The message behind "5/6" could get rather lost in the dreamy and rather sleepy, laid-back lounge feel.
"Everything's Sound (La La La)" resumes the happy-go-lucky, laid-back vibe Mraz has brought for the majority of the album. It is one of the few times that Mraz showcases the full range of his register (another song that afford him that opportunity is "Frank D. Fixer"), from the low to his underrated ability to hold a high note for more than 3 seconds. However, the chorus does get a little repetitive, especially at the end. The track segues its way into perhaps arguably the best track on the album, "93 Million Miles".
"93 Million Miles" uses the framing device of how far the Earth is from the Sun and also how far the Moon is from Earth ("240 thousand miles from the Moon, we’ve come a long way to belong here/To share this view of the night, a glorious night, over the horizon is another bright sky") to illustrate that no matter how far you are from and in life, you can always come back home. It is Jason's most philosophical and as many have called it, existential song to date.
Like "Everything's Sound" and "Frank D. Fixer", "Who's Thinking About You Now" is another chance for Mraz to showcase his vocal talents to the forefront and out of these three; this one is a grand slam. His highs, lows and transitions shine alongside a beautiful string arrangement and well-placed electric guitar. This all oddly strikes a perfect balance between the energy of his vocals and the understated feel of the music behind it.
"In Your Hands" is probably as black or white a song you may ever get from Jason Mraz. You will either see it as a metaphorically genius love song with hands and water as framing metaphors or you will see "In Your Hands" as a lyrically weak and contrived song that tries way too hard. This reviewer prefers to see "In Your Hands" somewhere as both: there is some sort of metaphorical genius going on in the track but is left wondering if Mraz played it somewhat safe, something he usually does not do, even when he's not waxing philosophical.
"Be Honest" is probably the most straightforward song lyrically on the album; it is a track where Mraz is only asking for one thing: the truth ("I don't ask for much, just be honest, with me"). The honest and forward lyrics about asking for the truth is set against a cool, breezy acoustic guitar with a xylophone and drum tapping.
The album ends on the foot-tapping, philosophical but yet cool and dreamy "The World As I See It", a fitting conclusion to an album full of the four-letter word in the album title.
To sum up Love Is a Four Letter Word, Mraz is not setting a new high bar, he is simply creating a new horizon for him to journey into and set new bars for excellence within that horizon lyrically and sonically. This is how some of music's greatest singer-songwriters have stuck around for so long and the album represents another potential horizon Jason Mraz would like to set new heights with. Outside of a couple tracks ("In Your Hands" and maybe "Everything's Sound") where debate could ensue about what he is doing, Love Is a Four Letter Word is another excellent album to have in your collection; and in a world where danger is happening constantly, we do need someone to lift us up, make us feel good, make us love again and Mraz does exactly that with this album.