Graded on a Curve:
John Mayer,
Continuum

Damn right I have a grudge against John Mayer. I’ve never forgiven him for 2002’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” the not so anodyne (it’s been linked to fatal brain aneurysms on every continent) bit of aural foreplay that followed me from gym to car radio to supermarket when it came out.

Then what does he do? He follows “Wonderland” with the equally despicable “Waiting on the World to Change.” There’s a reason I cover my cat’s ears every time a John Mayer song comes on; his estimation of human beings is low enough as it is.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking; you’re thinking “Sure, Mayer has produced some real pablum, but he also happens to be a talented blues guitarist of impeccable taste who has played alongside such legends as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton, and you really owe it to yourself to give him a listen.”

So that’s what I did. I girded mine loins and turned on 2006’s Continuum, which received mucho plaudits for its blues and soul touches. Mayer was expanding his musical palette, went the spiel, and beginning to show off his guitar chops, and in short evolving into a bona fide musical renaissance man.

So I listened, and what did I get? A sensitive singer-songwriter’s album of exquisite whiteness, that’s what. Sure it’s relieved by a few brief moments of high-quality (but tightly reined in) blues guitar, and a few of its songs don’t make me want to scour my ears clean with Ajax afterwards. But for the most part Mayer plays the wimp with his earnest caucasian croon, which he backs up with the kinds of limpid tunes that pass for funky if your tastes in funky run to Train.

Things go south from the get-go with “Waiting on the World to Change,” that very bright and very laid back anthem to–abject passivity. All that bad shit going down? There’s nothing John can do about, except sit back and eat a wish sandwich. Hey, but at least he sounds upbeat about it. Never in my life have I heard such a perky celebration of craven, unconditional surrender.

“Belief” has a good backbeat but still comes off like bad white boy funk, and lyrically it’s just a continuation of “Waiting on the World to Change.” Mayer the surrender monkey sings, “We’re never gonna win the world/We’re never gonna stop this war/We’re never gonna beat this/If belief is what we’re fighting for.” Never mind fighting for the resistance: Mayer is the rock equivalent of Vichy France.

“Gravity” is a sultry blues; problem is Mayer is no blues singer. His seductive croon was made for the ladies and their fellow travelers, and gravity isn’t the only thing working against him–he’s seemingly incapable of tapping into the pain of the world (he relies on the backing vocalists to do that). I admire the way he way he uses his guitar as punctuation, but his playing lacks fire; Mayer is proof positive that when it comes to playing the blues, impeccable taste isn’t necessarily a virtue.

“The Heart of Life” is a simple little ditty of the sort that makes me hit fast forward. But I’m being unfair; Mayer actually signifies on this baby, and it almost sounds like he’s signifying from the heart. And his guitar playing is straightforward in its quiet elegance. “Vultures” comes at you like vintage Boz Scaggs and ain’t half bad; I like both the guitar work and the falsetto, and this dirty lowdown on the perils of celebrity at least sounds earned. Good show.

“Stop this Train” may be about the travails of celebrityhood or it may just be about the way life has of flying by, but there really isn’t much there; it’s pretty and proceeds at a nice shuffle, but I don’t miss it when it’s not around, and isn’t that the way good songs are supposed to work? “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” is, well, slow, but I wish somebody else was singing it; it’s the curse of the earnest white boy croon again. Mayer’s voice is a one-trick pony–he never sounds angry or defiant or particularly depressed, and has he ever raised his voice in his life? No, his vocal settings are stuck on “low-flame seduction” and after a while–by which I mean two songs or so–he begins to get on my nerves.

As for Mayer’s cover of J. Hendrix’s “Bold as Love,” I don’t even know where to start. He does some undeniably exciting things on guitar, and his band (which includes Steve Jordan on drums) produces a nice groove, but there’s that voice again. He approaches the tune the same way he would a pop tune; bold as love he ain’t, unless your tastes in bold run to Dave Matthews.

“Dreaming with a Broken Heart” matches Randy Newman piano rock with Coldplay vocals and dynamics and leaves me cold until the band kicks in; Is that some real urgency I detect in Mayer’s voice? Problem is its only there for thirty seconds or so before Mayer retreats to safer ground.

“In Repair” finds Mayer as ambivalent as ever, and back to mimicking Chris Martin; unfortunately Mayer is no Martin, who for all the abuse he gets knows how to win hearts and minds by virtue of sheer emotionalism. I like the instrumental break and the way Mayer cuts loose on guitar; the boy has–it’s undeniable–chops. But Mayer’s big on restraint, which is to say he never cuts too loose, and boy do I wish he would.

Closer “I’m Gonna Find Another You” is a low-key blues right down to the tightly reigned Boo Mitchell horn arrangements; plays some really nice blues licks he does, and his vocals are more convincing than usual. But the damn thing’s over in the blink of an eye, and I can only wonder what a real-guitar slinger with something to prove might have done with it.

John Mayer is trying to have it both ways, but Mayer the sensitive lady’s man lays waste to everything he touches. I would love to hear him go guitar god as a sideman, but I’m not holding my breath; the guy owns $5,000,000 in watches, and not one of them is telling him its time to move away from the microphone and let somebody else do the singing. That said, I’m impressed by the stuff I’ve heard by him and Dead & Company; I’ll be damned if he hasn’t changed the timbre of his voice for the gigs, and he makes a pretty good Jerry.

Continuum didn’t sway my opinion on Mayer. Far from it. He’s a pop lightweight and would-be guitar heavyweight undone my his irrepressible good taste. Am I being too hard on him? Maybe. Perhaps I should just admit he’s not my cup of musician.

That said, I never plan to listen to him again. Or let my cat listen to him either. Continuum put my poor Stewie in a funk, and it’s going to take a whole lot of catnip to bring him out of it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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  • Brandon Jones

    You listened to the wrong albums. On Paradise Valley and Born And Raised he got a little bit of that early Grateful Dead Americana going and it’s by far his best stuff. There’s still not muscle to the two albums, but they are much more listenable than Continuum. Also, I totally agree that Vultures is by far the best song on Continuum.

    • Michael Little

      Thanks for your input, Brandon. I appreciate it. I’ll have to check those LPs out. I’m guilty as charged in so far as I didn’t take the time to listen to any more of his body of work, but you know how it is–deadlines are pressing. Maybe I’ll revisit him one of these days. Like I said in my piece, I liked what I heard of him with Dead & Company. I’ll never like his soft and gooey stuff, but the guy does have other dimensions.
      Have a good one!

      • Brandon Jones

        Man, I’m just impressed you took time to comment on a random dudes opinion in the comment section! No need to also take time to listen to music you don’t care for.

        • Michael Little

          Hey, ya took the time and I liked what you had to say. Have a good one, my friend!

  • Narry a New

    I cain’t believe I read this fucking trash

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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