John Mayer: Heavier Things

[1 December 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

A few nights prior to writing this review, I reviewed John Mayer‘s Toronto concert. The very idea that he performed at the city’s Air Canada Centre was a big leap from my standpoint. With two albums to his credit, the thought of him filling half of the venue would’ve been a plus. But when the place nearly sold out, it was a big surprise. It’s that same buzz surrounding the Connecticut-born and now Atlanta-based performer that is making his new album a big deal. But is it all that big of a deal? Well, in some cases yes and in others, particularly the last few songs, no. Oh god no!

The opening track, “Clarity”, starts off with a simple acoustic guitar and a steady handclap that works nicely in the background. Here Mayer starts off slowly before moving into a style that yearns for adult-contemporary radio. Light but not lightweight, punchy but not over-the-top, the chorus just ambles along. Mayer hates being compared to Dave Matthews, but if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck (not that either party does), the comparisons will be there. If Matthews had done more of this on his solo debut, the results might have been better. The ensuing tune, the leadoff single “Bigger than My Body”, makes the album soar for a brief period of time. Having all the right parts in nearly all the right places, the tune is easily the single. Unfortunately, Mayer doesn’t revisit this up-tempo format often for the album’s remainder.

“Something’s Missing”, which is also found on Mayer’s live album Any Given Thursday, has a soulful flavor that works to his strengths. The guitar riff resembles Bruce Cockburn or Sting, but it still has its effect later on. The checklist itemized near the conclusion is another asset Mayer has going for him: strong songwriting without being too highbrow or quirky. “New Deep” sounds like an extension of the previous song, with nearly a similar arrangement with less edge. Some might consider this a breather, but given how it drops off later, it’s not really that bad. What is perhaps the album’s highlight is “Come Back to Bed”, a horn-tinged Motown-esque slow dance that Mayer pulls off with flying colors. Drawing the listener in early and often, Mayer’s blues guitar prowess is shown in spots. “And I won’t sleep through this / I survive on the breath you are finished with”, he sings.

“Home Life” is more urban sounding with its brand of back-beat and structure. Although building to a relatively decent chorus, it seems to miss the mark and falls flat from the first chorus onwards. Fans who find no fault with their heroes will lap this type of song up, but the groove comes too late to right this musical ship. Thankfully, “Split Screen Sadness” atones for the last tune. Bringing to mind early alternative rock, the bass line and Mayer’s vocal shine while the keyboards add an anthem-like quality. It’s also possibly as close as Mayer will ever get to a U2 effort. Slow building but definitely a toe-tapper, the song can basically do no wrong, even in its mellower melancholic lines. “I still wish you’d fought me ‘til your dying day / Don’t let me get away”, he sings as if he’s been influenced in some way by the Cure’s Robert Smith.

The last three tracks have one promising song. The acoustic folk-like “Daughters” brings Sting to mind, but it’s definitely a breather song when played live. The simple strumming and wordplay mesh well together. But the final two tracks sound more like filler than anything here. It’s a noticeable drop as “Only Heart” tries for a pop rock idea, but it sounds far too forced and, to a lesser, extent, rushed. “Do not waste this evening”, Mayer opens the song. Perhaps he’s muttering to himself as the song is just too glossy and color-by-numbers. What is more depressing is how it shines compared to “Wheel”, a tune left best to people like Ron Sexsmith. The chorus tends to keep it together a tad, but it seems too mediocre. Overall, Heavier Things is a sophomore effort that doesn’t have as many drawbacks as one might assume. Seems he’s in it for the long haul.

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