I haven’t thought about Jason Mraz in years, maybe even a decade. Most likely it was at some wedding where the couple was hanging onto the nostalgia of 2008’s “Lucky” for their first dance. I had a vague memory of him coming out as bisexual in 2018, but, as that’s often the most under-promoted letter of the queer alphabet soup, I joined in and wrote it off as him just changing his mind. But Mraz is back in my life with a vengeance, and maybe yours, due to the release of a new, poppy album in June of 2023 called Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride. To make sure you’re really paying attention, he’s now celebrating 15 years of We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things, which was just certified 4x platinum.
Words by Brandon Smith, Images By Brian Hunter
Plenty has been said about that album when it was first released, which received mixed to positive reviews. I’ve always found Mraz to be a positive little fellow with sometimes poppy, sometimes charming, rhymes. Hearing him is very much ok when I’m in a grocery store or walking past some beachgoers as I try to get to my spot, but a full album listen all the way through? Never.
But time has softened me, or at least worn me down like rain to a stone, and I’ve opened my heart to Mraz’s particular brand of syncopation. What’s turned me around here are the bonus tracks on the album re-release, which are stripped down or demo versions of the original album tracks. Almost all of them are better versions of the originals, or at least versions I want to listen to multiple times.
Take “Make it Mine”, that Grammy winning second single that beat the likes of John Legend, Seal, and Stevie Wonder. The original is a positive, toe-tapping bop with some saxophones and a brief gospel choir for effect; its bridge filled with bubble pop electric runs and some horns round it out to take us home. It sounds like something a film character would listen to as a daily affirmation in an opening montage. The bonus track, however, is stripped of all that production and it changes the vibe. A guitar, light percussion, and a single supporting vocal slows down that slightly saccharine feeling and gives us something much more pensive. It’s here that Mraz’s vocals finally have a chance to stand out. and be appreciated for their delicate power. In the original his vocals are competing with the instrumentation and pacing and his call to seize the day is a bit too polished and subdued to be believed. Whatever was going on in that Casa Nova Session, he sounds like he’s taken a bit of a beating and is more determined than ever to make it his.
Similarly, “If it Kills” completely changes tone, almost like an entirely different artist covering Mraz. In the Casa Nova Session version, gone is the silly voicemail gimmick that an artist might appreciate in their late-20s and the too many strings used as an emotional crutch in the original. Mraz’s voice is so passionate here that if he sang it during a college open mic, I just might fall in love with him.
But these live versions don’t always work to make the song better. “Butterfly” is already kind of… silly. I know it’s a fan favorite, but maybe the original moves so fast and the production is so slick (like a late, abandoned draft of an Ed Sheeran song), that people don’t do a double take at lyrics like, “I’m your pole and all you’re wearing is your shoes,” or “…you make my slacks a little tight, you may unfasten them if you like.” But when that stuff is slowed down, it seems much less cutesy and a lot more like parody without the artist being in on the joke. Again- Jason’s voice is on point here, but some of the lyrics fall a little flat with me, even within the context of the song.
Hearing “Lucky (Jason’s First Draft),” which is getting it’s first release here, is an interesting look into the evolution of a song. Thankfully the song received subsequent drafts, because this one is so plucky and full of aww shucks twee that it would’ve felt at home in a Hallmark Christmas movie. In the original, Caillat’s vocals are so beautifully blended and the production just minimal enough in the one we all know and love that it’s hard to imagine anyone going back to listen to this first draft after the first listen. But it’s a great example of an artist’s early work, who then brings it to collaborators who enhance the initial effort.
There’s another song on here that’s also been previously unreleased: “Happy Endings” and it’s lovely. It feels like a pandemic-era Taylor Swift: no chorus, complex lyrics that take us a narrative journey, and one that isn’t afraid to switch up the musical stylings throughout its run. As with all these stripped down versions, Mraz’s voice takes center stage and it’s so sharp and so on pitch and so earnest, that it’s the kind of thing I could listen to multiple times. And I did.
I suspect that fans of Jason Mraz don’t need to be convinced to buy a special edition of an album they’ve been listening to for almost two decades. But for those of you on the fence, or who never gave Mraz much thought or are buy/bi curious, these special tracks might change your mind. Just like those MTV Unplugged releases, it shows an artist in a new light, and you can hear them as a singer rather than a pop/rock star. And this is the version of Jason Mraz I want to remember- a singer/songwriter who would be a treat to see in an intimate venue like The Hotel Café, somewhere I can bathe in his strong tenor and charismatic lyrics.
More info: Jason Mraz 15th Anniversary LP