MUSIC: John Mayer's Gigantic Step Sideways (With a Shuffle Backward)

Written by Daniel Anderson on . Posted in Music

John Mayer

John Mayer

John Mayer’s soon-to-be-released album Battle Studies (out Tuesday) just moved to the top of my most anticipated list. But for not the right reasons. As Rhombus’ illustrious editor can attest, I don’t get into new music easily, so the idea that a new release just became “anticipated” says something significant. In this case, significantly worrying for John Mayer.

To understand my anxiety over Mayer’s new album, it might be helpful to quickly recap his music career as this writer (biasedly) sees it. (Full disclosure: this musical history is going to completely gloss over 2003’s Heavier Things, which, for anyone familiar with the album and especially the ridiculously self-indulgent cover, won’t be that big of a disappointment.)

John Mayer emerged from the Atlanta underground scene with 2001’s Room for Squares, a poppy, extremely breathy, acoustically driven album with hits you’re probably still trying to forget, like “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “City Love.” Despite the low points, the album’s highs showed signs of an artist with immense potential and hinted at the emergence of an entirely unique talent in mainstream music. Can you name another top 40 artist that tunes their low “E” to a “C” and slap-picks an impossibly complicated song like Neon? I couldn’t either.

What most of America didn’t know at this point was that John Mayer grew up idolizing Stevie Ray Vaughan and cut his chops mastering blues scales at the age of 15. My theory is that Mayer could see his dream of revitalizing blues-rock slipping beneath the tide of pre-teen girls screaming for “Your Body is a Wonderlandand felt he had to do something about it. So, in 2005, Mayer pulled what was arguably the music industry’s biggest “eff you” move of the decade — he dumped his band, ditched the sound that made him popular, and went on tour with his new blues-rock group, the John Mayer Trio. A stark contrast to his early work, the Trio played strictly gut-punching blues-rock, and the change came so suddenly that droves of high school girls bought tickets to his shows and left wondering if they had even seen the right band. Although not as commercially successful as his previous efforts, the Trio’s live album Try! rocked sufficiently hard to recast Mayer’s image and showcase him as one of the premier guitar talents today, mainstream or otherwise.

In 2007, Mayer finally married both ends of his musical spectrum with Continuum, which was artistically his best album by almost universal agreement. With a big emphasis on lyrics and songwriting, Continuum was nonetheless bluesy and powered-up in most respects — and even featured a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love,” which Mayer nails. Crushes it, even. At last, John Mayer seemed to have found his place in the music world.

Now, for the anxiety. Recently I checked out “Who Says?,” the first single from Mayer’s aforementioned forthcoming album. My first impression was that, for an album that should be a big “next step” in Mayer’s musical evolution, this represented a gigantic step sideways with a shuffle backward.  If not for the chorus, this song might be a complete throwaway. Musically, it sounds like leftovers from “Stop This Train” and “Heart of Life.” Lyrically, it seems that Mayer has left his strong suit — straight-laced, self-contained observations — and overextended his philosophical capital. Who says you can’t get stoned, John? Well, nobody. You’re rich and can do whatever you want.

Here are three questions I’m asking myself in anticipation of John Mayer’s studies from this and (presumably) other harrowing battles with which he deals:

First, what message is John sending by releasing this track as his first single? I guess it’s a song about breaking away from the never-ending line of dudes and babes that just want to hang out with him all the time, and saying goodbye to all those long nights partying in cities across the country. Boy, what a battle. Is he saying he’s tired of a life of materialism and superficial relationships, or is it a ploy to gain even more popularity with the masses? You know, the old “act like I don’t care if you like me or not, in order to make you like me even more” thing.

Second, what will the rest of the tracks sound like musically and lyrically? Is the album more of this silly-as-he-tries-to-be-philosophical mush, or will the other songs revert back to electrified rock? After taking nearly a decade to find his groove, Mayer is at a crossroads. With his new album, he can further cement his image as a progressive rock virtuoso for the masses, or he can take himself way too seriously, try way too hard, and implode under his own desire to be culturally relevant. “Who Says?,” our best early indicator, points to the latter of these options, which kills a little part of my soul.

Finally, why is he wearing sunglasses at night in his new music video? If he’s just trying to avoid attention when he’s out on the town with his buddies, that’s one thing. If it happens that he thinks his shades cool enough to wear even when the sun’s not shining, then we know just how out of touch with reality he is — and Battle Studies might just be that wild of a ride. As a gigantic John Mayer fan, I’m choosing to stay on the cautiously optimistic side of the line, but bracing myself for the worst.

Daniel Anderson is an occasional contributor to Rhombus and one of the world’s five biggest John Mayer fans. (Note: these rankings are highly subjective.) Make sure to check back for his review of John Mayer’s Battle Studies in the coming week.

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