[24 July 2008]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
“Go tell your friends / Go tell your friends, your stupid friends / Exactly / Exactly what Johnny did”, John Mayer croons on the bluesy “Out of My Mind”.
Well, OK. You see, what Johnny did was Johnny went and grew up. And he grew up in a hurry. Gone are the screaming teens and predictable Police covers. In are the matured twenty-somethings, the credibly over-qualified backing musicians, and just about anybody who still cares about making sure a generation has an actual, real, live guitar hero that isn’t just a videogame craze. Oh, what eight years and the blues can do to a young man.
Where the Light Is isn’t Any Given Thursday, Mayer’s first attempt at a live album. But it is a recording that proves Mayer himself has come full circle. After all, songs like “No Such Thing” and “Your Body Is a Wonderland” aren’t the reasons we were listening back in 2001. In fact, it was the introduction of such a young man’s gravity that made us pay attention. Really, you aren’t even supposed to know what a quarter-life crisis is when you can’t legally drink in the States.
Sure, he may have proved his fruition with his Trio’s 2005 effort Try!. It was an obvious—albeit necessary—attempt at nailing down the true fans, and even gaining some newer, older ones. But even after that, it was hard not to picture a 19-year-old sorority pin-up prancing around the quad, bellowing the bridge to Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman”, while texting her girls about how awful Biology was.
So Where the Light Is does its job. It takes the casual fan through what Mayer describes as the “three different incarnations of my music”. And that would be fine, if he hadn’t begun his career in coffee shops and frat parties, whispering lyrics about failed relationships and beautiful girls.
That’s probably why the first five offerings—featuring only Mayer, an acoustic guitar, and a few friends on select tracks—are the album’s least interesting and most expected (hey, you got to keep at least some of those sorority sisters around, right?). Not even Continuum’s tear-jerking “Stop This Train”, or a pseudo-twanged-up version of “Daughters” holds the quick acoustic set together.
But that’s OK, because for Mayer, age has brought intelligence as well. Rather than forcing more acoustic tricks on the crowd, he knows exactly why the majority of the crowd stuck around. And at this point in his career, it’s not to hear another bubblegum treat—it’s to hear him shred. And when he shreds, boy does he shred.
That’s why the album’s best efforts undoubtedly come from his trio’s set. From the opening notes of Memphis Slim’s “Everyday I Have the Blues”, to the rapid-fire take on Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow”, and even the traditional, 1955-esque blues original “Come When I Call”, Mayer seems more loose and more fun than ever.
Still, it isn’t until “Out of My Mind” that Mayer finally sheds any candy-coated stereotype he may have earned before. On easily the night’s best and most passionate track, Mayer demands attention by effortlessly going from loud to soft, aggressive to delicate, and, most importantly, sincere to promising. Who ever thought a generation more focused on overnight successes than instrumental prowess would have an actual guitar god?
Sure, his original, made-for-pop-stardom material shines as well. His band’s take on “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” is neat to hear, and the semi-funked-up version of “Believe” takes a normal Mayer melody and makes it somewhat danceable and infectious. But even then, one has to wonder if the songs’ good sound comes from the trio’s Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan sitting in with the rest of the band.
“Let me first say how wonderful it feels to know that it’s 2007, and we just launched into a slow blues and 7,000 people in L.A. just went nuts. All is not lost,” Mayer proclaims during the opening seconds of “Out of My Mind”. He’s right. All is not lost. But maybe, just maybe, that’s only because of exactly, exactly what Johnny himself has been doing for the last three years: bringing music back to music, and reality back to sincerity. And in today’s music world, he probably couldn’t have done that unless he truly was out of his mind.