[21 September 2006]
John Mayer gets a bad rap. After three albums of quality singer/songwriter material, Mayer is still judged by two songs that don’t necessarily represent his best work, ”Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Daughters”. Both songs were huge hits, and both songs also won Mayer Grammy Awards. While neither is a bad song per se, they’re not necessarily representative of his work. Mayer’s a lot more than a teen-idol dreamboat, dropping cute lyrics for the lay-dees. Dude’s a fairly serious musician. Significantly more in line with his idol James Taylor than vacuous pinup boys like Ryan Cabrera. Not many teen idols would go on tour with blues legend Buddy Guy or take a blues trio on the road, as he did last year. It seems like there’s been more of a concerted effort by John in the past couple of years to show off his skills as a musician than as a (reluctant) pinup loverman-Jessica Simpson rumors notwithstanding.
Personally, I found Room for Squares (2001) and Heavier Things (2003) outstanding efforts. While Squares was a fairly obvious (but solid) effort to cast Mayer as a less jammy Dave Matthews, Heavier Things showed that the man could write a hell of a lyric, and also showed off some serious guitar chops. Continuum takes it to the next level. Mayer’s artistic maturity definitely shows here in several ways-he takes his first co-production credit, sharing the boardwork with session vet Steve Jordan. Musically, Continuum sticks a toe in funky soul, airy jazz, sentimental balladry, and Clapton-esque blues/rock. Despite the fact that the production can be a little too polished at times (come on, can we hear ONE bum note or piece of feedback?), Mayer proves himself completely able to handle anything that gets thrown at him-and this includes a solid cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love”.
While at it’s core, everything sticks to a pop/rock framework, there’s much ear candy to be found here, starting with album opener and first single “Waiting on the World to Change”. While I may not agree with the lyrics (I’d much rather help to change the world than wait for it to change), it skates along on a smooth soul groove and some of Mayer’s most impassioned singing. The album’s other politically-themed track, the airy “Belief”, has a vaguely jazz-spiced sound that’s reminiscent of Sting’s early solo work. While “Belief” has an elaborately constructed sound, other songs are more stripped down. “Gravity” (which appeared on last year’s live album with the trio, “Try”) is a convincing blues jam until about three-fourths of the way in, when ghostly background vocals kick the song up a notch. There are also two acoustic-based tunes that have the capacity for “Daughters”-like success, without being as cloying. “The Heart of Life” combines an almost country-styled base with snappy blues licks. The song itself is a gentle reassurance to a friend that things in life aren’t as bad as they seem. Meanwhile, the moody “Stop This Train” is Continuum’s standout track. A wistful look at how things change as one gets older, this could easily be seen as the sequel to Room for Squares’ nostalgic “83”. It’s a beautiful summation of the bittersweet feeling one has as time passes, parents age, and life gets less easy.
Casual fans may see Mayer as the writer of swooning love lyrics based on “Wonderland” and “Daughters”, but many of the songs on Continuum look at relationships from a sour perspective. “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” is just flat out cold. “I make the most of all the sadness/ You be a bitch because you can”, Mayer sings, signifying the undeniable end of a relationship in a way that might hurt the feelings of his female fans just a little bit. He might win them back, however, with the wounded “Dreaming with a Broken Heart”. This delicate piano ballad hits every emotional button imaginable. While it’s the type of ballad that screams out for a huge orchestral conclusion, it instead bleeds into a stunningly heartbroken guitar solo before ending in the same spare manner it began. You almost want to tip your hat to John for that alone.
Those who have bypassed Mayer’s work up till now based on his two biggest hits (or even worse, based on his somewhat obnoxious, but usually entertaining interviews) are missing out on some excellently crafted music. As Mayer’s grown more confident in his work, it’s gotten better. He’s certainly one of the better songwriters in his age group, and his vocals and guitar playing also place him in an elite class. While Continuum doesn’t necessarily contain a sure-thing pop hit, it’s one of the few mainstream pop/rock albums that’s satisfying from the beginning to the end. If that stinky “Wonderland” taste is still in your mouth, a dose of Continuum will go a long way towards knocking it right out.