Let’s talk about John Mayer’s voice. You know the one — those goopy dulcet tones on “Your Body is a Wonderland”, soft and sweet as taffy including all the leftover stickiness that makes you feel like you better go brush your teeth afterward.
Mayer is inseparable from his voice, which might seem like an obvious point to make about anyone other than Mayer. He’s someone who’s spent so long trying to escape his voice — his original teenage swoon instrument — it’s hard to know which one you’re getting these days. Is he the Stevie Ray Vaughan impersonator of John Mayer Trio? The soulful bluesman of Continuum? The detached folk rocker of his last two albums? Jerry Garcia lite with Dead & Co.? Or is it some combination of both, none, and all of the above?
With his last album, The Search for Everything, Mayer leads us to believe he’s landed on his most essential voice — a self-professed unapologetic return to pop music. There we hear him play tight, jazzy guitar riffs on songs like “Moving On and Getting Over”, the kind of groove that could appear on a John Scofield record if it weren’t for Mayer crooning out lines like “one text away from being back again”.
Unlike the jazz compositions of a John Scofield, though, with whom Mayer has collaborated, pop music doesn’t adhere to rigid musical purism, which is why it’s pop music. Its only intention is popularity. Mayer doesn’t get far trying to blend blues, soul, folk and jazz into some higher John Mayer Aesthetic. Instead, the album winds up as very pleasant and easy-listening but stripped of any discernible core, any thread that ties it all together. It’s not pop music, at least not in the traditionally defined 18-25-year-old demographic sense. It does have its heartening moments, including “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” with a very understated, Randy Newman-type charm, but little excitement in the ways that 20-year-olds might enjoy.
It leaves you wondering how Mayer defines pop music and also about his somewhat unique moment in rock ‘n roll history right now. Very few can straddle the perilous line between commercial and critical success like he’s doing. If he were someone else, with slightly less impossible ambitions, he might be content standing in for Jerry Garcia in Dead & Co., doing that well, and doing that only.
But it’s almost like that side of him can’t exist without the other side that desperately craves popular validation. In this effort, his voice becomes both a utility and a burden. He needs it to draw in his faithful but only up to a point. “Come, step into my world of vast musical appreciation!” he seems to be telling them. This until it goes over some of their heads and for others, doesn’t aim high enough. He wants to sell out and still retain his street cred, a foolhardy goal that you must at least credit him for trying.
Anyway, he’s not the first to do so. A select few have attempted to scale the heights of commercial and critical acclaim, and the unease therein, with Billy Joel being the best example. In a 2002 profile for The New York Times Magazine, Chuck Klosterman interviewed the legendary rock critic Robert Christgau, who described Joel’s problem as follows:
“If he wanted to be a humble tunesmith — a ‘piano man’ if you will — he would be a lot better off. But he’s not content with that … You don’t see Celine Dion complaining about a lack of critical respect, and she’s a lot worse than Billy Joel. But she doesn’t care. Billy Joel cares deeply about that respect, and he wants it bad.”
John Mayer operates in something like the inverse of this proposition. He’s already earned a lot of critical respect, so his return to pop ends up feeling like regression. Then in interviews he’s always very self-reflective in his claims not to care:
“For all the moves I’ve made on the musical chessboard, I am now me,” he told Rolling Stone in June. “I’m no dummy. I know my record could use some rock bangers. I went in once a week and would play a Black Keys feel on the drums, and distort the guitar, and start making up words. Then I’d listen and go, ‘I don’t buy it.’ The older I get, the more I realize you don’t have to embody everything you love.”
And yet the album is far more diverse than his words would lead you to believe. Even if The Search for Everything doesn’t embody everything he loves, it has to capture much of it. Like Billy Joel, he seems to want to be defined by being broadly defined. He says as much on the album, even, with a humble folk tune called “In The Blood”: “How much of my mother has my mother left in me? How much of my love will be insane to some degree? And what about this feeling that I’m never good enough? Will it wash out in the water, or is it always in the blood?”
His songwriting abilities, his ambition and his self-awareness never leave much room for doubt, so only the question of identity remains open-ended. Constantly, he makes you wonder if his original pop voice is really him, all of him — or just part of him.
My suspicion is that The Search for Everything was in part an attempt to recapture some of the magic of Continuum — a somewhat sacred space for him between blues and pop — while also proving how much he’s grown up in the time since, how much range he’s acquired. And yet as a shameless John Mayer fan, I can’t help but want to hear that Black Keys-style banger! Maybe a whole album full of them. Mayer has more history on his side than Billy Joel did. We’re so far into the waning arc of rock ‘n roll at this point that everything is derivative; everything is something that came before it, the only measurable differences in degrees. You get the sense he knows this but for some reason shrinks from it, maybe even finds it reductive.
Yet if I’m John Mayer, I embrace my ability to do it all, only in separate forums. Make the grungy rock album here and the Beyoncé covers there and the Love Songs way over there if you have to. “Unless I luck into it,” he said in that same Rolling Stone interview, “the world is supposed to keep moving on and there are supposed to be younger people who are supposed to attract younger people to music.” The end of that sentence seems to indicate he’s happy occupying the cultural space of a James Taylor ;; making the kind of music with broad, lite radio appeal. But then why imagine even lucking into it? Why do the satirical music video with the faux-posh Asian appropriation and dancing pandas? Why search for everything?
It’s because Mayer, like Billy Joel, has a small but powerful part of him that still believes he can elevate the genre of pop music. He wants to be both good and cool, and wants it so bad that he over-corrects for it, outruns himself at every turn, when he should let the music or everyone else speak for his coolness. He never learns that it’s not something he gets to decide.