As major label pop stars go, Jason Mraz is an easy guy to root for: he’s possessed of what is quite obviously a great voice, and he’s openly one of the indoor kids. But there’s one glaring flaw in his artistic persona that negates much of that goodwill: he comes off as impossibly smug. The disgusted expression on his face when Moby read, “Fountains of Wayne,” rather than his name as a Best New Artist nominee at the 2004 Grammy nomination ceremony was nothing short of schadenfreudelicious. It was a moment that inspired hope for Mraz to scale back the bloated sense of self-importance before he headed into the studio to record his sophomore album.
Unfortunately, the album, Mr. A-Z, is too often marred by Mraz’s self-aggrandizing tendencies. Lead single “Wordplay” is indicative of this, as Mraz boasts of having avoided his sophomore slump without commenting on the apparent clairvoyant skill implied by said boasts—the single has yet to break into the top 50 at pop radio, so it seems he’s been too busy counting unhatched chickens to do much self-reflection. That the song lifts its lyrical hook (“Yeah, the Mr. A to Z/They say I’m all about the wordplay”) verbatim from his debut album, Waiting For My Rocket To Come, is disheartening, at best, since Mraz has proven that he’s capable of writing some awfully clever, inventive lines.
In addition to his stellar vocals (he pulls off some falsetto runs worthy of mid-‘80s Prince at the end of “Did You Get My Message”), it’s his grasp of the natural meter of language and how that meter can best be applied to a three-and-a-half-minute pop song that sets Mraz apart from his contemporaries—John Mayer, Gavin DeGraw, Josh Kelly, and Howie Day. And though it has some admittedly fine moments (the contradictory images of “Life Is Beautiful” somehow manage to avoid cliché), those flashes of wit and invention are more sparsely scattered than they were last time around. The album adheres to the law of diminishing returns—Mraz still uses plenty of 50-cent words, but he doesn’t use them to say anything especially interesting. What salvages the album is the production job by Steve Lillywhite, who frequently chooses to foreground the catchy, polished contributions of Mraz’s first-rate touring band.
The melodic hooks on Mr. A-Z are as strong or stronger than those of “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” or “You And I Both,” and the guitar solo provided by Raul Midon (whose debut is starting to gain commercial momentum) on “Bella Luna” nearly justifies the album’s list price all on its own. So, even when Mraz stumbles over his own lyrics (as on the vaguely creepy “Geek In The Pink,” which makes Mraz sound like a more credible version of Maroon 5, thanks to Questlove’s contributions on drums), Mr. A-Z still sounds like a great pop record. And, like his Waiting For My Rocket To Come, it gives the impression that, if he can ever get over himself, Mraz could put together something exceptional.