By Lena Shichijo
Since releasing his first major label album, Room For Squares, in 2001, John Mayer has achieved considerable commercial success, gaining enough attention to become not only a well-known musician but also a pop icon. His early success as an acoustic rock musician created an image of him as a sensitive pop singer, as he is still often associated with his 2002 hit single, “Your Body Is a Wonderland.” Since then, Mayer has struggled to attain recognition as a serious musician from the general public, having turned his music toward the blues genre and formed the John Mayer Trio last year. His latest album, Continuum, was released in September of this year and continues in that blues direction. Although Mayer attempts to display maturity musically and thematically, the album sounds like an easy-listening flirt with serious topics, something pleasant to listen to but ultimately not impressive.
The album’s opening song and first single, “Waiting On the World to Change,” is an attempt to explain the indifferent attitude of Mayer’s generation. He describes their frustration with troubles in the world and their seeming inability to change it, so “We keep on waiting/Waiting on the world to change,” he sings. Although the song clearly takes its melody from Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Mayer’s song lacks the productive message of Mayfield’s original. In his song, Mayfield encourages people to be hopeful and invites them to “get on board,” declaring, “Faith is the key/Open the doors and board them/There’s hope for all/Among those loved the most.” In contrast, Mayer’s song takes a passive stance and explains why his generation is indifferent but does not go beyond describing the situation. He does not encourage productive action or even provide a positive attitude to adopt. Mayer’s message is vague, and he touches on big issues—the war in Iraq, corruption in the government, big corporations—without delving into them at all. In his current official biography, Mayer is quoted saying, “Nobody wants to get involved in a debate in which the rules and the facts will change so that they’ll lose. So we end up with this other option, which is, I guess we’ll just have to wait for things to get better.” In the song, he claims, “it’s not that we don’t care/we just know that the fight ain’t fair,” and he seems to be defending his generation by explaining their apathy, yet the song itself ends up being an example of that apathy. “Waiting On the World” calls into question the social responsibility of musicians in crafting their songs, as Mayer’s mention of “me and all of my friends” can be interpreted as a reference not only to his generation but also to his fellow musicians. “We’re all misunderstood/They say we stand for nothing/And there’s no way we ever could,” he sings, yet leaves the listener wondering why he would write a song about what he stands for without suggesting doing something about the situation he protests. By not suggesting a productive response, Mayer implicitly condones inaction.
“Belief” similarly illustrates a muddled attempt at sending a message. Mayer’s lyrics carry a strong critical tone, yet the subject of the criticism is a bit too broad. “What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand?/Belief can,” he declares, but “belief” itself does not carry the implication of the closed-mindedness or ignorant action he criticizes. Because his lyrics lack details, he sounds as if he is discouraging strong belief as a whole. The song is undeniably catchy, with a driving bass line and quick notes on the guitar, and showcases Mayer’s lyrical skills with the verse, “belief is a beautiful armor/but makes for the heaviest sword/like punching under water/you never can hit who you’re trying for.” However, by insufficiently articulating his criticism, Mayer creates a song with a vague, and possibly misleading, message.
Several of the tracks on Continuum sound pleasant but having little interesting or emotionally moving in their music and lyrics. “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” sounds muffled and has little musical variation within the song, with a repetitive chorus laid on top. “The Heart of Life,” “Slow Dancing In a Burning Room,” and “I’m Gonna Find Another You” sound decent but produce almost no reaction from me. “Dreaming With a Broken Heart” and “In Repair,” though, exemplify Mayer’s ability to write pop songs with musical merit, as the former song showcases an effective gradual crescendo, and the latter successfully integrates impressive guitar skills into pop songwriting.
Continuum includes a rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love,” and though Mayer handles the song sufficiently, I have to question his decision to include it on the album. For me, the cover calls more attention to the song itself rather than to Mayer’s rendition of it. Although Mayer displays vocal flexibility stronger than usual in the second verse, his vocals are still rather flat, especially compared to Hendrix’s fierce singing in the original. Mayer’s guitar-playing is confident and aggressive, but his vocals cannot match that energy, revealing his limitations as a singer. Furthermore, Hendrix’s vibrant lyrics stand out amidst Mayer’s lukewarm writing, as “Bold As Love” is packed with visually stimulating lines such as, “Anger he smiles towering in shiny metallic purple armor.”
Since touring as the John Mayer Trio, Mayer has learned about restraint, quoted on his website saying, “The more concise and right you have it, the less you need around it.” He uses “Gravity” as an example of this restraint, explaining how it “had to be sparse” and declares it “might be most important song I ever wrote.” Indeed, Mayer deftly uses musical space in the song; the tempo is slow, but—unlike in the lackluster repetitiveness of “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)”—his guitar-playing provides enough variation at the right times to keep the song interesting. “Vultures” is another good example of Mayer successfully restraining himself on a slower song. The track presents not only good musicianship but also solid songwriting, with such visual lyrics as, “All of these vultures hiding right outside my door/I hear them whispering/They’re trying to ride it out/They’ve never gone this long without a kill before.”
“Stop This Train,” a more up-tempo song, joins “Gravity” and “Vultures” as another one of the strongest tracks on the album. The repetitive guitar melodies and the steady percussion evoke the sound of a train moving along steadily and work well to place focus on the narrative of Mayer’s lyrics. He addresses the issue of aging, admitting, “So scared of getting older/I’m only good at being young.” Although he sings, “Stop this train/I want to get off/And go home again,” he eventually seems to accept the reality that “we’ll never stop this train” and sounds ready to move past it and face the rest of his life. His tone in this song contrasts against that of “Waiting On the World To Change,” in which he suggests accepting reality but remains passive about it. “Stop This Train” also serves as an interesting contrast to a song from Room For Squares, “83,” in which he recalls his childhood: “Well these days/I wish I was 6 again/Oh make me a red cape/I wanna be Superman.” Continuum finds an older Mayer worrying about the future instead of “romanticizing years ago.”
Throughout Continuum, Mayer relies too often on the standard verse-chorus structure, and his songs are too simple to disguise the formulaic use. He consistently returns to choruses that are not strong enough to support that kind of heavy attention, such as in “The Heart Of Life” and “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You).” In the past, Mayer has proven both in his songs and in interviews to be very capable of articulating ideas clearly and cleverly, but on this album, he does not explore and flesh out ideas in his songs, instead choosing for the most part to speak in general statements with little lyrical complexity. The lyrics on this album lack imagery, as he blandly states situations instead of describing them, providing few visual details. Mayer’s previous albums do more justice to his songwriting- for example, in “My Stupid Mouth” from Room For Squares, he describes an awkward situation: “We bit our lips. She looked out the window/Rolling tiny balls of napkin paper/I played a quick game of chess with the/Salt and pepper shaker.” In “Neon,” off the same album, he sings, “When sky blue gets dark enough/To see the colors of the city lights/A trail of ruby red and diamond white/Hits her like a sunrise.” From Heavier Things, “Something’s Missing” contains some of Mayer’s most graceful lyrics, such as, “When autumn comes/It doesn’t ask/It just walks in where it left you last/You never know when it starts/Until there’s fog inside the glass around your summer heart.”
My initial impression of Continuum was that it was the album skeptics would expect Mayer to put out. Mayer has a unique personality and a sharp wit, but this album does not reflect that- it sounds too polished in production, too controlled in performance, and too even-tempered in attitude. The album as a whole is pleasant but not impressive by any means. It is clear Mayer takes his music seriously, but on this album, he does not seem to be pushing himself, instead just sauntering along a path following the musicians who have influenced him. Mayer may be headed in a blues direction, but he still has much to learn from his musical predecessors; “Gravity” and “Vultures” are the only tracks on which he successfully uses space within the music without the songs lumbering on. The rest of Continuum sounds like an easy-listening album tailored for passive consumption through radio. The songs lack energy, a fact emphasized by Mayer’s level voice; “Good Love Is On the Way,” a b-side off of the “Waiting For the World To Change” single, proves Mayer’s capability of creating dynamic, spontaneous-sounding music in the studio, yet this album displays little of that ability.
Regardless, Mayer seems genuinely determined to develop his music into something worthy of comparison to that of his heroes such as Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He may not yet be where he wants to be musically, but he is trying. As he explains on “In Repair,” “I should assume it’s still unsteady/…/I’m not together but I’m getting there.” Hopefully, Mayer’s next release will better reflect his earnest ambitions.