Two years ago, Jason Mraz went all concept as he explored every facet and avenue (positive, negative, heartbreaking) of love of the aptly titled Love Is A Four Letter Word, which also somewhat coincided with the breakup between himself and fellow singer-songwriter Tristan Prettyman (who didn't exactly mince words the same year with her fiery album release). After two years have passed, having long moved on, where would Mraz be for his fifth album?
Remember the sheer positivity (even when things seemed bleak?)in his breakout Mr A-Z and his debut album Waiting for My Rocket to Come? He's baaaaack and now he brings in a healthy and much needed dose of optimism in his newest album, titled Yes!. The album's admittedly understated, acoustic mood and material is very much appropiate considering how incredibly snarky, somewhat selfish and in many ways, pessimistic America and the rest of the world has generally become. There is something to be said when someone as naturally positive and happy-go-lucky as Mraz is has decided to bring all of that back in such a world that may look at it with skepticism but even the most pessimistic of persons has to be softened after taking one listen to the album in its entirety.
The acoustic tone is set from the get go on the instrumental opener "Rise," with its sweet, dulcet strings transitioning and mixing in with a choral line from the singers of all-female folk rockers Raining Jane close to the end of the instrumental piece. It's a perfect seguing into the overall acoustic tone to the album and sets up opening full track "Love Someone" perfectly.
The aformentioned "Love Someone" is certainly something that could have shown up on his last album, but given the relatively melancholic tune of that album, the subtle positivity oozing out of "Love Someone" turns out to be far much more appropiate for this album. But it's not an in your face type that Yes! gets into at certain tracks, this one is more of a calm, soothing type of positive, a subtle love poem wrapped in soft acoustic guitar strumming and liberal but subtle use of the sitar. It's perfect summer romance song to play at night in the city or during the day on a country road with the roof open.
Next track "Hello, You Beautiful Thing" is more of the in-your-face good vibe and positivity, especially in the beginning and the refrain: "Hello, I know its' gonna be a good day/Hello, hello, you beautiful thing." If you can't break out a big smile at the end of the song, which is actually highlighted by the clear harmonies Mraz shares with Raining Jane via a smartly placed call and answer hook you won't get out your head, then something might actually be wrong with you!
Not known for having slick production, "Long Drive" might be as close as Mraz gets to that whole glossy radio-friendly production as he ever will. And he still manages to insert his understated, subtle charm into it, keeping the beginning and the end in his style. But the middle of the song is as beefy as it gets for him with the lush vocals, the soaring chorals from Raining Jane and even a somewhat dramatic flair. It's all wrapped up with a percussion and sitar-based musical line that gives an even more profound weight and it's exactly that that makes it a perfect single to blast on a long drive!
"Everywhere" is another one of those tracks that gets Mraz close to the whole modern radio-friendly arena with its drum-heavy catchy beat that provides the album's punchiest moment. The lyrics itself comes off as a tad bit on the stalkerish side, where Mraz talks about "being everywhere" and "everything in everywhere". For a lot of musicians, this would be also creepy, but Mraz uses his silky-smooth vocal delivery to bring some kind of aw-shucks, cute charm to what is otherwise a perfect song for lovesick stalkers everywhere.
Expect "Best Friend' to join an increasing collection of wedding songs and even wedding proposals...and why not? The main line of
"Thank you for all of your trust
Thank you for not giving up
Thank you for holding my hand
You’ve always known where I stand
And I feel my life is better
So is the world we’re living in
I’m thankful for the time I spent
With my best friend"
really affirms such a lofty status.
Mraz returns to the understated, acoustic charm from the first couple tracks with the aptly named "Quiet." His partners in crime Raining Jane return for some charming, folk-tinged harmonies and this time the women harmonize a bit with Mraz for this one.
A steel guitar and banjo adds a slightly country feel to it, although "Quiet" might earn a spot on music played at bonfires and campfires in the future.
"Out of My Hands" could provide Mraz a true crossover hit, if for its country/bluegrass feel, especially in the beginning. It also provides the album its first "breakup" moment, but unlike Mraz's charmingly weepy "I Won't Give Up," "Out of My Hands" provides a constrastingly positive spin on a breakup. Why? The musicianship in the song is very airy, optimistic, even charming, but the lyrics provide an opposite feel with "Was it something I said, something I did/It must be over my head, I didn't quite understand it/But now it's out of my hands, it's out of my hands."
Hands down, the best track in the album is the hauntingly beautiful and minimalist cover of the hit Boyz II Men song "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday." The first fifteen seconds is a must listen if one does not realize how subtly powerful Mraz is vocally without any instrumental behind him. It's not to say he isn't that without the production behind him, because it gets even better once you add the piano and Raining Jane's humming choral line through the rest of the piece. Is it better than the original? Probably not, but this is an absolutely worthy version of the classic.
"3 Things" showcases what life is all about. There are downs and there are ups. The song begins coming off a down in ones life but like life's journey itself, the song transforms into a peppy, upbeat and summery track that highlights the comeback when one is down and the eventual triumph of overcoming the down. Mraz ties it with a subtle moral line of "when life gives you lemons, make some lemonade."
Mraz opts for a more soulful positivity a la Ben E. King (Stand By Me) in next track "You Can Rely On Me." Just like "3 Things", this one holds another life-affirming anthem, likely more for long-lost friends in times of need. "Back to the Earth" puts Mraz firmly into Jack Johnson territory, but replaces Johnson's affinity for his home state of Hawaii for more of Mraz's rural/small-town upbringing in Virginia with the rooster call (although Mraz elects to use the ukelele). The track though preaches a common link between Mraz and Johnson, which is their equal affinity for wanting to keep things and life simple and going back to basics when things get too much, which is highlighted by the opening line "Whenever my head starts to hurt / Before it goes from feeling bad to feeling worse / I turn off my phone, I get down low and put my hands in the dirt."
"A World With You" is certainly another candidate to let Mraz get a taste of country crossover, but this one unlike "Out of My Hands" has a firmly country music feel to it. But unlike the so-called "bro country" movement permeating Nashville, Mraz uses the country music feel and spins romanticized, resonating lyrics like "Let's move to Paris and get ourselves a loft / Let's live in squalor and spend all cost / Let's throw caution to the wind and start over again".
"Shine" is perhaps the most ambitious track Mraz has ever done. There's a decidedly vague metaphorical feel to it,
with storytelling allusions to the sun, moon and the sky and one cannot help but realize multiple intepretations that this reviewer will leave the listeners and fans to decide what "Shine" really means. But with all that, it is an oddly perfect way to wind down the album.
This is an album that has all the hallmarks of being a great album. But because of Mraz's reservedness and his lack of wanting to seek publicity like some of his more publicized musical colleagues, there won't be a lot of people that will pay attention to what is certainly one of THE best albums of 2014. And he proves that you don't need to heavily experiment and dabble in this and that to be great. And there is something to be said about Mraz, people have accused him of being too steady, too even throughout his career. And you know what? Mraz's alleged steadiness is superior to your steady.