After trying different songs and styles over the past 4 years, Jason Mraz comes up with an album that is very different from his previous offerings yet still succeeds in delivering a satisfying sound.
If you're looking for the upbeat and fast-paced funk of We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things, you won't find it here. That may be the biggest problem for his thousands of fans. This album is definitely more subdued than his other efforts. The risqué lyrics and fun wordplay that many fans have come to love aren't on this album - yet the song writing on this album seems more focused on its goal.
The production on Love Is a Four Letter Word is very smooth - lush strings come in to add those touches, the horns are not in your face (with the exception of The Freedom Song) and the harmonies are light and airy. With the exception of voice, guitar and drums, every instrument comes and goes very discreetly, adding their touches when needed but without fanfare. This can both be a blessing and a curse, as it sometimes sounds like the soul of a song has been smothered by the production. Here we find an album about Love that talks about love but never quite hits the emotional peaks and lows that love brings about.
This is typical of most Mraz albums however - songs on a Mraz album rarely sound like they do when performed live. This is perhaps the curse of being an artist who can pull lyrics out of thin air with a melody that lingers - a produced album never sounds "live".
Fans who want to know that Jason hasn't lost his fun live style should buy the Deluxe version which features live tracks of songs that didn't make the album and showcase that fun. That version also includes a demo version of "I Won't Give Up", the first single.
Certain songs do feel like they were "required" by the label: Living In The Moment sounds like a throw-away to I'm Yours, Mraz' biggest hit from the last album; Everything Is Sound also sounds like it was based on some of his earlier music, yet toned down. The songs all carry a positive message - it's better to write about love and positivity than hate and negativity - yet a lot of the lyrics show a sincere earnestness that comes with knowing, getting and losing love.
At some times, the album takes on a country feel (Living in the Moment and Frank D Fixer); at other times, it sounds like the roots-rock of the 70s (Who's Thinking About You Now, Be Honest) and sometimes like jazz (5/6). A hidden track "I'm Coming Over" sounds like Paul Simon. Rather than a "party" album, it's a "cruising" album, the kind of album you want to put on for a relaxing afternoon or a dinner party. In fact, the album may garner more fans from the over-30 audience than from the younger generation.
This album doesn't have hits written all over it. While most songs can stand on their own, none sound like break-away hits.
This is a more mature-sounding Mraz, grappling with a universal topic, expressed in a harmless, uneventful way. Yet the album grows stronger and stronger on every listen, with something for everyone. In the end, to borrow a phrase from I Won't Give Up, the album knows "it's worth it".