Ed Sheeran was only 11 years old when Jason Mraz released his major-label debut in 2002. But over the last few years the young British singer has risen quickly to challenge Mraz's once-secure position as music's go-to acoustic folk-pop guy. This month Sheeran's "x" entered the Billboard album chart at No. 1 with sales of 210,000 copies – more than twice as many as Mraz's last record sold in its first week in stores in 2012.
Given that competition – not to mention the extra heel-nipping from Hunter Hayes -- it's easy to hear 37-year-old Mraz's new one as a kind of strategic move: Where the expansive "x" and Hayes' jittery "Storyline" both emphasize those acts' youthful intensity, "Yes!" comes on far more softly than any of Mraz's earlier work, with words about growing up set against chilled-out arrangements devised in part by the L.A. group Raining Jane.
"Every time I hear music they've added more stuff to it," he sings in "Quiet," an excitable whippersnapper turned elder bro, "Things are always moving into a futuristic place."
No fear of that here: Though lush harmony vocals from Raining Jane subtly flavor Mraz's sound, "Yes!" strips away the slick keyboards and gentle hip-hop beats the singer used on his first few discs; it's long on hushed, strummy ditties that sound like they could've been recorded at any point over the last few decades.
Which doesn't mean they lack a certain record-maker's craft. In "Best Friend" Mraz salutes a confidante over a slow-blooming groove, while "Hello, You Beautiful Thing" has a dreamy midsection that warmly recalls "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. ("Long Drive" borrows its lilting melodic line from a more telling source: Sheeran's hit "The A Team.")
But eventually all this mellow reflection begins to resemble a retreat rather than an advance. "When it feels like life has gotten out of control," he counsels at one point, "Know that it's out of your hands." The sentiment is comforting, I suppose, except that "Out of My Hands" just sort of lies there; Mraz doesn't sell his solution anywhere near as convincingly as Sheeran sells his problems.
It's similarly hard to know what to do with the dubious ecological knowledge Mraz drops in the painfully earnest (and inevitably ukulele-laden) "Back to the Earth": "The only explanation for a high-rise must be that everybody wants to get high." And then there's his leaden rendition of "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," the nostalgic R&B tune popularized in the early '90s by Boyz II Men.
You can understand, of course, what Mraz is getting out of the song: Yesterday the world was his. But its inclusion on "Yes!" leads to a bit of confusion. If he isn't ready to pass the baton, then why make an album like this one?
2 stars (out of 4)