Atlantic Records, 2012
Three and a half stars
It doesn't help a lot that Love is a Four Letter Word kicks off with its weakest track, the hippy-folk, Bob Marley-aping "Freedom Song." It's pleasant enough, with horn sections added for extra effect, but the chorus of back-up vocalists comes across as over-the-top, and the song never rises above its cheesy, self-serious lyric. Things get better quickly though, with a trio of surefire radio singles filling slots 2-5. Best is "I Won't Give Up," which bears an ineffable hook and a splendid, earnest vocal from Mraz (who I've always believed to be one of the most technically gifted singers in the pop music world). The other two - "Living in the Moment" and "The Woman I Love" - will be too sugary for many, but those with a soft spot for well-crafted pop music will find themselves whistling the melodies after a single listen. The same goes for songs like "Frank D. Fixer" (despite clunky lyrics), or album-highlight "93 Million Miles," a glorious slice of summer pop that will probably make it onto countless mixtapes and playlists during the upcoming season. The latter epitomizes the laid back, breezy nature of this record, and while that's not necessarily a quality that's going to lend Love is a Four Letter Word much lasting value in the long run, it's hard not to enjoy it for its immediacy.
Then, three-quarters of the way through the record, Mraz makes a sudden and jarring turn from summer-pop record into break-up album territory. The transition doesn't quite work, mostly because the intimate songs that close out the record, stuff like "Who's Thinking About You Now" and "In Your Hands," sound like they would have felt infinitely more at home on this record's predecessor than they do here. Luckily the songs, especially the latter, are good enough to not completely derail the album's flow (which up to this point is seamless), and the closer, called "The World as I See It," is a sonic feast, bursting with strings, vocal harmonies, bells, and electric guitar accents that carry the album out in grand fashion. Mraz's voice, which rises slowly out of the texture to nail a glory note at the song's climax, before melting back into a final chorus, sounds immaculate. "Coming Over," the hidden track, is nearly as good, with a falsetto-laden vocal line and a driving drum rhythm combining to form an irresistible nighttime atmosphere.
There are a lot of good songs on Love is a Four Letter Word, and they make for an enjoyable and relaxing listen, but the album as a whole never becomes more than the sum of its parts and that keeps it from standing alongside the year's best pop releases. Mraz has never sounded better, and he clearly knows how to write a memorable hook, but his lyrics too often drift into trite territory, and the album never quite decides what it wants to be. It's a solid collection, one that I can see myself playing, in bits and pieces, a lot throughout this summer, and one that will probably land somewhere with my slew of honorable mentions at the end of the year, but probably not one I will ever love. Mraz is a talented melodist, and an even better singer, and his pop songs are fun, I just wish that he would shed his formulaic format more often than he does. When he plays things a little bit looser, like with the deep rhythmic groove of "5-6," or with a lot of the stuff from Mr. A-Z, he comes off as a lot more interesting than he does on his radio hits. As is, Mraz sits in the middle of the mainstream road, better than contemporaries like Jack Johnson and Gavin DeGraw, but not ready to play in the ranks of John Mayer, Matt Nathanson, or Mat Kearney. He certainly has the talent to get there, but I think he's going to need to take a few more risks - or at very least, write some better lyrics - before he can make the jump.