In a year’s time, John Mayer has gone from unknown coffeehouse poet to Exhibit A in the case against the ever-tightening stranglehold on radio playlists. The boy has simply been beaten to death on the airwaves. His 2001 debut album, Room For Squares, seemed like a charming folk pop album at first, but is now frighteningly close to becoming my next beer coaster.
And then there are his live shows. A sensitive, introspective folkie like Mayer would have quiet, intimate gigs, right? Forget it. He’s Justin Timberlake with a guitar. His audience is filled with the same hysterical shrieking girls who were packing arenas for the Backstreet Boys a couple years ago. And Mayer does nothing to discourage them, putting his backing band a good ten feet behind him onstage, making himself the center of attention and his band a backing band in the most literal sense of the words.
This, you would think, would make his new two-CD live album, Any Given Thursday, unbearable, and in many ways, it is. But there’s yet another facet to Mayer’s canon that must be considered: The boy is a hell of a guitar player. He worships Stevie Ray Vaughn, and even covers him on disc one. But is his guitar prowess enough to trudge through song after song of screaming girls, who at times are so loud that they even drown out Mayer, the one with the microphone? Only for the truly devoted.
Mayer has a noodle streak him, turning even the most basic verse-chorus-verse songs into extended jams, adding more fuel to the notion that he’s a Mini-(Dave) Matthews. (To wit: the discs contain 15 songs stretched over 90 minutes) Granted, the little girls haven’t liked someone this prodigiously talented in a while, but that doesn’t make the wall of screams that follows the first chord of “Your Body Is a Wonderland”, or every other song, for that matter, any more tolerable. The smart thing would have been to wipe the screaming girls off the track in mixdown. Even Duran Duran knew to do this when they assembled Arena.
There are some decent moments here: his solo acoustic cover of “Message in a Bottle” is lovely. There’s a deft solo in the middle of “City Love”. The songs he attaches to the finale of “83” add an offbeat charm to an otherwise terribly depressing and — shhhh! — pathetic song. But then again, those songs he adds happen to be “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”, showing just how badly Mayer is pandering to his female fans.
There is also the sheer shamelessness of Any Given Thursday. A double live album (mercifully priced as a single album) from an artist with exactly one full-length album to his credit? That’s the most gratuitous cash-in since Depeche Mode released Songs of Faith and Devotion Live a mere six months after the studio version of the album hit Number One. Did the world really need a live John Mayer album at this point in his career? Did anyone even stop to think about that? Or was the cash cow too busy mooing, “Milk me!”?
Mayer has the chops and the tunes, but his image is in serious jeopardy, and in today’s image-driven market, that’s huge. He needs to reexamine his priorities while assembling his next record. Any Given Sunday suggests that he’d rather be adored than respected, and if that’s the case, he will pay for it dearly in the long run.