Jason Mraz could wrap his voice around names from the phone book and wring a wide spectrum of emotions from them, and several selections from new album "Love is a Four Letter Word" showcase that glorious range of his. Because he has such a swoon-inducing set of pipes and a remarkable ability to craft colorful melodies that showcase it he never fails to sound anything but resolute and inviting, helping his lesser tunes stand tall next to his stronger work.
Now firmly in his 30s and a decade into his career, Mraz often sounds comfortable yet conflicted on "Love is a Four Letter Word," trying to embrace his sincere (but often confining) peace-and-love persona and also find breathing room beyond it. This, as well as the fact that he is long-entrenched in a relatively stress-free life, no longer needing to worry about acquiring new fans or hits and heeding advice from his own personal "joyologist," inevitably makes him a different man and, therefore, artist.
He is at that once-in-a-career place creative souls reach (when lucky) where the old incentives to create art are suddenly replaced by new ones. He does not entirely succeed at getting out from under the clutter of expectations of fans and record company bosses, and for that reason a few tunes ("Everything Is Sound," "Living in the Moment"), while always lovely and listenable, sound mannered and even a tad forced, attributes which never applied to his former work.
Considering the expectations heaped upon him in the wake of "I'm Yours" and its massive, yet stifling, success, "...Four Letter Word" is certainly a winner if not an outright triumph, and that is principally owed to the willingness Mraz has to try new sonic palettes, reevaluate past declarations and mix moods, tempos and themes more flagrantly than on his past three albums. For every instance in which he can be accused of playing it safe, he can just as easily be praised for taking a corresponding risk.
"Who's Thinking About You Now?" is exemplary with its stark, warm instrumental arrangement and non-melodramatic, often almost-spoken brooding, as is the sparkly, curious "Frank D. Fixer," an upbeat ode to Mraz's late grandfather which heads in an interesting direction, achieving universality and a charming lack of pretense, perfectly showcasing that full-bodied, sun-drenched vocal presence.
"5/6" resembles earlier Mraz tunes with its idiosyncratic, unorthodox amount of verses and wordplay, his voice scaling a large range as he dispenses poetic droplets of Thoreau-like philosophy, at one point atop a swelling organ. It is a true pleasure and the album's best moment, although the tearfully moving "93 Million Miles" comes in on its heels with lyrics of profound love and compassion. Elsewhere, "The World as I See It," in spite of a trite phrase or two, is intoxicating as it is atmospheric.
While Mraz may not be perfectly framed on "Love is a Four Letter Word" - some of Joe Chiccarelli's production is a bit on the intrusive side, and a portion of his eccentricities, such as his delightful penchant for rap-singing, have been left on the cutting room floor - it is an album that affirms not only the humanity of the listener but also Mraz himself. It proves that, even when a slight sense of struggle slips in to the proceedings, he is unstoppably compelling and always intriguing, sometimes even more so as result. That alone puts him at the head of the class.