Reflecting On: Jason Mraz – Mr. A-Z

jasonmraz

The thing about Jason Mraz, aside from being one of the biggest pop stars in the word, is that he can be surprisingly easy to overlook. There’s a large chunk of my friend base who don’t know that he’s put out any music since 2008’s “I’m Yours”, much less two successful albums, including the person this article is about.

Every great album documents a certain moment of your life. They’re soundtracks for certain moments in time that record your own individual mythology, for better or worse. Unlike most listeners and even the artist himself, Jason Mraz’s Mr. A-Z is a war album to me that chronicles fear, the potential loss of a friend and overcoming crippling loneliness.

Several years ago, one of my best friends, and the person who introduced me to Jason Mraz’s music, enlisted in the army and was shipped to Afghanistan to fight as ground infantry. Several members of my family had recently passed away, and the idea that another person close to me was leaving for a war zone sent me into near panic attacks night after night as I sat alone in a dingy college library’s computer lab.

For whatever reason, Mr. A-Z was the only thing that could give me any comfort. I felt the battles taking place throughout the album. Beneath the pop and sweeping acoustic melodies, there was a subtle darkness and eerie percussion. Although unintended, I watched my fear and anxiety wage war against my confidence and hope that I would see my friend once he returned home, hopefully in the same state that he left in.

Mraz’s debut, Waiting For My Rocket to Come,was a colossal pop record with explosive hits like “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” and “You and I”. There is the same focus on pop for Mr. A-Z, but it begins to introduce the experimentation in genre and layers songs with a simple digital beat that sounds ripped out of a Sonic The Hedgehog game. It’s amazing, but there is an underlying strain and edge to the music that hadn’t seemed to have been there before this record. This type of experimentation would eventually begin to define the later part of Mraz’s career with albums like We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things and Love is a Four Letter Word.

For me, Mr. A-Z was always an album about overcoming. Overcoming fear, loneliness and throwing fist-fulls of confidence at the world. Each song is a progressive effort to overcome any self-imposed summit. It’s an issue Mraz himself addresses on “Wordplay”, as he sings, “The sophomore slump is an uphill battle and someone said that ain’t my scene / Cause they need a new song like a new religion / Music for the television / I can’t do the long division, someone do the math / For the record label puts me on the shelf up in the freezer /…/ Is everybody ready for the single and it goes…”

I listened to this album night after night for weeks as I worked on college finals, distracted at the idea of what war was like. I worried about the future. I worried about the past. Mr. A-Z was the only record that gave me solace as I walked home alone at four in the morning wondering if I would ever see him at home again.

The reason I attached so much meaning to this album is because, at the time, it felt like the record challenged adversity and discovered ways to overcome each obstacle with sass and humor. “Life is Wonderful” slowly built over a sinister jazzy guitar riff, and if you didn’t hear the lyrics play off of each other, the necessity of old age to appreciate youth, the necessity of darkness to find light, and “it takes a hole to make a mountain”, the guitar and eager drum would sound like despair itself.

But humor permeated the album and wordplay that never allowed itself to be taken too seriously. There are very few artists with enough confidence to write a complex pop song about premature ejaculation (“Clockwatching”) and refer to themselves as a “two pump chump”.

The song “Plane” began to terrify me. It had been his favorite song on the record, about a man helplessly in love with someone on the other side of the country. Its meaning and imagery changed in my brain from something romantic to the idea of my best friend racing over the skies of Afghanistan, of rocket fire, and trying to comfort himself by mouthing the lyrics, ““I cannot wait to call you and tell you that I landed somewhere / And hand you a square of the airport and walk you through the maze of the map / That I’m gazing at / Gracefully unnamed and feeling guilty for the luck and the look that you gave me”.

The chorus, “Well honey I can see your house from here / If the plane goes down, damn / I’ll remember where the love was found”, chilled my very soul.

Despite this, the album an uplifting wish to succeed. The rampaging percussion and jazz piano playing against Mraz’s magnificent croon on “Did You Get My Message” is one of the highlights of his career that shifts into a soulful ballad of hope. “Mr. Curiosity”, although a sad song, still finds peace against the downward spiral of the piano, and an operatic solo midway through. It always seemed to hold the panic attacks at bay.

I won’t say that Mr. A-Z is the greatest album Jason Mraz has put out; his fans are divided on that title depending on which part of his career and style they prefer. For me, each song represents the stairway out of the bowels of some campus building and into the cool humidity of the dewy early morning, upset about recent losses, hoping the distractions wouldn’t ruin my finals, and wondering if I’d ever see one of my best friends again. They gave me the strength to push the worry aside and get to work.

“Song For a Friend” became a tradition to cap off the night, and even to this day, I only play it on special occasions. Though he made it home successfully, this song was the anthem in my head for the few years he was in a war zone. It starts as a soft jazz number with the soft strum of acoustic guitars before the slow impulse of electric guitar and piano take over, the song ending in an orgy of sound as trumpets blast against Mraz’s echoing voice and a silky guitar solo. It’s the battle that I needed to win.

“Well you’re magic he said, but don’t let it all go to your head / Cuz I bet if you all had it all figured out, then you’d never get out of bed / No doubt, of all the things that I’ve read what he wrote me / Is now sounding like the man I was hoping to be / I keep on keeping it real cause it keeps getting easier, he’ll see”.

Mr. A-Z is, for all intents and purposes, a relatively simple album. But It’s also a statement against the hardships of the world – a rallying call to find something to grab onto and stay afloat. It’s an album about love and enjoying life. For me, it’s a reminder that nothing can ever truly conquer you if you push back against it. It’s all about the wordplay.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and is melodramatic.

Review: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Chasing Yesterday

Noel-Gallagher

The thing about Noel Gallagher is that his songwriting sounds timeless. As one of the people responsible for crafting Britpop, his songs consistently sound as though they’ve always been around, and we’re just rediscovering them when each album releases. As such, his newest effort, Chasing Yesterday, sounds like classic Noel, whether that is for better or worse.

Gallagher’s original solo album, the self-titled Noel Gallagher and His High Flying Birds, sounded outside of most everything in the discography of his past band, a little outfit known as Oasis. His signature guitar sound was mostly ousted in favor of softer acoustic-centered pop and an intricate mixture of violins and other odd instruments. Chasing Yesterday aptly marks a return to form with heavy guitar and an Oasis-style swagger. The softer songs are there, but they’re few and far between.

This doesn’t sound like the second in a line of solo albums as much as it does a series of songs that could’ve been pulled from any point in Oasis’ career. While it’s enough to sound like we’ve heard it before, the good news is that it reaffirms how good of a writer Gallagher is.

Chasing Yesterday fixes the problem that I had with High Flying Birds; it was too soft for someone considered to be one of the world’s biggest rock stars. There is an energy here that has been sorely missed since the breakup of Oasis. It’s reassuring to hear him sound comfortable not having to distinguish himself away from his old band as he did on High Flying Birds, and reinforces how much he actually wrote for Oasis. Also, the deluxe version’s extra tracks feel like an absolute must have. How some of them were cut from the actual portion of the album, I’ll never understand.

If you’ve ever heard an Oasis or Noel Gallagher song before, you know what to expect; poppy guitars rattling intimately over a pulsing bass and crackling drums. There is a little something for everyone with a diverse style of music, whether it be relaxed blues (“Riverman”), a semi-electronic song backed by fuzzy guitars (“In the Heat of the Moment”), the softer pop songs that tamper with stringed instruments and keyboards (“The Girl With X-Ray Eyes”) or genuine rock songs (“Lock All the Doors”). Each instrument is given its moment to rise to the occasion and take command.

I think it’s easy to say that Chasing Yesterday refers to and focuses on the music, as the lyrics can be fairly random. The songs are catchy and designed to easily be sung along to, but there is an inconsistency with them that doesn’t sound connected. “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes” has Noel singing, ‘So she took me by the hand, we followed clues left in the sand / As she swallowed space and time we gathered pearls and swine / She shot me to the sun like a bullet from a gun”. In the context of the song, it sounds wonderful but isolated it just feels random.

If there is a theme lyrically to Chasing Yesterday, it’s the idea of trying to live up to the legendary songwriter that his fans expect him to be. “You Know We Can’t Go Back” sounds like a near sequel to the Oasis song “Fade Away”, both musically and thematically. Where the latter was a song about losing the dreams that you grew up wanting, “We Can’t Go back” has Noel singing, “Gone are the days and the dreams we screamed out loud / With my heart in my mouth / I couldn’t tell you what just hit me”.

Gallagher also touches on the subject of trying to recapture the glory of his most famous songs, most of which are 20 years old at this point, despite the numerous albums released since then. In “The Dying Light”, Gallagher sings, “I keep on running but I can’t get to the mountain / Behind me lie the years that I’ve misspent / And I’ve been sinking like a flower in the fountain” before breaking into a chorus of, “And I was told that the streets were paved with gold there’d be no time / For getting old when we were young”. The lyrics carry an even heavier weight over waves of a crisp bass line and the clamor of drumming that sounds like the harsh patter of rain drops.

It’s hard for me not to recommend Chasing Yesterday to anyone. It reinforces the greatest aspects of what makes Noel Gallagher such a strong songwriter and adds a necessary energy to his solo effort. The problem is, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before and makes me miss quieter somber sound of the original High Flying Birds. That said, the album is exactly what I want when Noel Gallagher releases an album and adds to a career of incredible work.

3.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has loved Noel Gallagher for as long as he can remember. In fact, he knew about Noel Gallagher and his music before Paul McCartney and John Lennon and their Beatles music. What are the chances?