It’s always fascinating to see what direction songwriters take with their second album. The first album is typically a collection of a lifetime’s worth of work. The artist is able to approach the production process with a blank slate, free of any stigma attached to previous work, and is afforded the opportunity to pick the best songs from his or her catalogue, readily discarding a multitude of numbers that simply did not make the cut. When it comes time to cut album number two, the songs selected now come from those composed over the relatively short period of time since the first album and it soon becomes apparent whether the artist truly has a knack for songwriting, showing evidence of maturation, or if their prior success was simply the result of picking a few gems out of an abundance of throwaway material. Such is the nature of the beast that has led to the “one-hit wonder” and the “sophomore slump.”
With Mr. A-Z, Jason Mraz pokes fun at the fact that the second album is a setup for failure. “Wordplay,” the lead single on the album, demonstrates Mraz’s uncanny ability to make light of any situation. His knack for puns, as exemplified by the album’s title (a play on his last name), is the key focus of this tune. Using the catchphrase “It’s all about the wordplay,” from “Too Much Food,” off of his debut effort, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, Mraz reminds listeners that his lyrical and often hip hop-esque twists and turns remain a constant component despite changes in several musical aspects. In what he calls, “A pop song about a pop song,” Mraz references the dreaded sophomore slump, mixing his own fears of failure with a great deal of self-advocacy and humor to create a clever meta-single.
The aforementioned musical changes manifest themselves in a variety of ways. First and foremost, Mraz shatters the image of himself as a happy-go-lucky acoustic guitar strummer trying to seduce high school girls. This is due in part to the depth and introspection conveyed by his lyrics, providing an effective complement to his rampant giddiness. More importantly, though, is the fact that the songs all sound different while still maintaining a cohesive album feel. Under the direction of acclaimed pop producer Steve Lillywhite, Mraz and his band intersperse diverse instrumentation and careful texturing to keep the tracks, which are notably longer than those on Waiting for My Rocket to Come, interesting enough to keep the average pop fan listening. At times, as on the canorous “Mr. Curiosity,” Mraz abandons his guitar and simply adds vocals over piano, strings and drums.
The fact that the songs are significantly long by standards of popular music, with not a single track under three minutes and several featuring extended instrumental breaks, is indicative of the fact that Jason Mraz has either become more adventurous or more inclined to smoking reefer during studio sessions. A careful listen supplies evidence for the adventurous notion. Mraz does not become repetitive or long-winded, even on the closing number, “Song for a Friend,” which aside from a lengthy orchestrated section, features the Lee Davis High School Choir, accompanying the singer in an uplifting reprise and counteracting the somber nature of the song.
Also apparent is the band’s chemistry that has developed from touring with the same group of individuals for the past three years. While the cast of musicians who perform on the album does rotate somewhat from track to track, musicians Adam King, Ian Sheridan and Toca Rivera remain staples throughout, enabling sharp musical turns and dynamic contrast.
Mraz stated, prior to the release of Mr. A-Z, that he intended to make a more vocal album. While the former musical theater major showed off his pipes on Waiting for My Rocket to Come, he truly shines on his current effort. Effortlessly weaving vocal lines together, Mraz proves that he understands how to create melodies that inspire drama and emotion. On the self-deprecating “Geek in the Pink,” which is embellished by a number of electronic instruments, the vocals go from being free of affect and relatively low in the mix, to explosive and daring, allowing for the listener to experience the highs and lows of the track.
Jason Mraz is a reminder that sometimes popular music is popular because its goodness is not singular. Rather, it can be appreciated on many levels. With Mr. A-Z, he plays to his strengths vocally, musically and lyrically and comes out on top. Mraz expands beyond his debut mark and proves that with diversification, hard work, an apt producer and most importantly, a great deal of natural talent, the sophomore slump may indeed be mythical after all.
Archived article by Scott Eisman
Sun Staff Writer