My Life is Punctuated by John Mayer
Some notes on the release of four new songs.
When I was 18, John Mayer’s Battle Studies came out. I took my lunch hour off to hop in a friend’s van and drive to Best Buy to pick up the album. It didn’t matter, really — my inability to resist the allure of leaked tracks took care of that — but it felt like something that was worth doing. Mayer had already billed the album as a sort of ‘heartbreak handbook,’ which was appealing to an 18-year-old who was convinced that all life was heartbreak. And so, the album became, in a sense, my perspective on the world.
When I was 21, I moved back to Canada from England. Moving back is really easy, and then really hard: people are interested in you and your return, and then they aren’t anymore and you have squat to show for it. That summer, Mayer’s Paradise Valley came out. The album, it felt, was about coming home and finding home and feeling at home, and since I was doing the same, it too became my perpective on the world.
I have been, in varying degrees, a John Mayer fan from the beginning. His first album, Room for Squares, was always around the house, and I was given his live DVD, Any Given Thursday, as a birthday gift. Between this and his second album, Heavier Things, I was a passive sort of fan. (It also helped that I was about 12, and my musical tastes only half-cemented.) Around then, though, I started playing guitar; by the age of 13 I was heavy into Stevie and Buddy Guy and Clapton and Robert Cray. And in 2005, Try! came out, and it was Mayer playing in a blues trio. That, I think, inextricably tied my emotional life to the trajectory of Mayer’s career.
Mayer, for a host of reasons, has always been a public figure, which has factored tangentially into my musical attachment to him. That his personal life and music attracted throngs of female fans was a foil, of sorts, to my own fandom. And I’m not alone; I know more male fans of John Mayer than I do female, and each one of them are bigger fans than most. (If a Mayer concert is in town, I’m either going to it with them, or I see them there.) Mayer’s fan base has always been like this: there’s people who are fans on a public level, and those of us who are fans in spite of it. Neither is a completist’s view of things; Mayer will always be part his public image, part his music. He’ll always be the musician whose solo on ‘Covered in Rain’ is among the best of all time. He’ll also always be the musician who told Rolling Stone that he masturbates while talking on the phone.
( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
Mayer’s latest offering — a multi-part offering titled The Search for Everything, the second wave of which was released today—is an interesting litmus test for the limits on my fandom. It is the only Mayer album since like, Heavier Things, that is released at a moment where I feel generally (?) in control of my life, and thus it is the only album that I don’t feel as if I need. (When Born and Raised was released in 2012, I simply had nothing better to do but sit on my bed with a guitar and learn the songs.) I feel, generally, in control of things. Historically, this has meant that I just listen to John Mayer less; when things get bad I retreat to the world that I know most about, the world of ‘Gravity’ and ‘Split Screen Sadness,’ and other downbeat songs that were, for large swaths of my life, little weird auditory homes for my heart.
The Search for Everything, whether you want to call it one album or two, is untethered. It meandres from genre to genre: in Wave One, Mayer drifts between a quasi-soul groove on ‘Moving on and Getting Over,’ to the folk anthem of ‘Changing,’ the surfer-cool (but also super lame) ‘Love on the Weekend,’ finishing with the could-have-been-early-Coldplay ‘You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me.’ The collective effect presents as aimlessness, and it’s not until you get to know each song that the quality of the record starts to reveal itself. It’s interesting: Wave One is an unremarkable album but for each song that comprises it. Albums are succesful in that they become more than the sum of their parts, and Wave One’s only success is that each of those parts is better when considered outside of its whole. This is a complicated way of saying that Wave One was kind of a shitty album made up of pretty good songs. (‘Moving on and Getting Over’ is an okay groove with some good lyrics, while ‘You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me’ is a Coldplay-ish brit-pop tune that, while a bit out of its element, is in fact fantastic.)
Like every John Mayer album, it seems, I have been prepared to hate it, and yet despite that it will bust me into a million tiny little pieces.
I wanted to hate Wave One, and in truth, upon first listen I did. Each preceding Mayer album had been meaningful on first listen, and this one just wasn’t. By the end of the first day, I was firmly sold on ‘YGLFIM,’ and a by the end of the week was hooked on ‘Moving On and Getting Over.’ Such, it seems, is the power of John Mayer albums: no matter how much I want to dislike them, I seem physically incapable of the feat.
Wave Two, released today, has had even less time to germinate (in the name of speedy reviews) but is an immeasurably better set of songs, while being an equally blasé album. As a whole, Wave Two is disjointed in the way its predecessor was: it goes from groovey, to acoustic, to groovey, to country. But, much as Wave One, each song stands individually. ‘Roll it on Home,’ stands out, if only because it feels like the entire thread of John-Mayer-as-country-artist thread has been leading to this song; ‘Emoji of a Wave’ is a comfortable Mayer acoustic track; ‘Still Feel Like Your Man’ and ‘Helpless’ are ultra groove-y in a way that keeps them alive, even if the lyrics on top are ho-hum.
I can consider the notion that this wandering is the inevitable end phase of Mayer’s career — a musical career which has never settled into something predictable, and has infuriated fans by abandoning a musical home as fast as a new one is available. Mayer has more or less disappeared from the sort of public life that got him in hot water seven or eight years ago, having retreated to a Montana ranch. In one sense this makes him more palatable; in another this has made him less interesting. Wave One’s wandering felt like a hastily written album, like four songs that were forced into an uncomfortable marriage with one another. My sense was that they were four songs indicative of a musician who, after becoming a mega-star, blowing that up, and then licking his wounds, still hadn’t figured out what was next.
The thing is, to an outside observer aimlessness looks pretty much the same as being happy doing whatever the fuck you want. Wave Two works as an album not because it gets Mayer back on some sort of musical track for listeners, but because it’s just a better version of not caring about expectations than Wave One was. Or to put it another way, it’s an album where Mayer is kind of doing whatever the fuck he wants. There aren’t many albums that can go from soul to the Rolling Stones-esque ‘Helpless’ to the country ‘Roll it on Home’ in less than 15 minutes, and it should be said that doing it in a way that preserves the emotional impact is an impressive feat.
This is a preliminary review, and so outlines the limits of writing about music. How I feel about it now will, I assume, be drastically different than how I feel about it in a week or two. I will find little lyrical beats to curl up in that are as happy as they are painful. Like every John Mayer album, it seems, I am prepared to hate it and despite that, it will inevitably bust me into a million tiny little pieces.
Wave Two will surely succeed in this regard. It’s an immensely sad album — with lyrics like “I still keep your shampoo in the shower, in case you want to wash your hair” — but a good one, too. That it feels lost, and feels like it’s coming from an artist that’s lost, seems less crucial on Wave Two than it did on Wave One. The far-flung genres of the album are held together by the meditative melancholy of the entire thing.
I wanted to dislike this album. I wanted to point out that it’s a disjointed mess filled with subpar songs, but in truth it isn’t that. I’m not sure if it will have the effect of shaping my perspective on the world in the way that previous albums have, and that’s probably a good thing. I get older, the numbers on the calander change, and ambiguity in one’s musical tastes become more comfortable. I used to get very uncomfortable when people asked me ‘what do you listen to?’ because the answer always felt unsatisfactory to me. Now, I’m happy just shrugging my shoulders and saying everything. This was once a way of avoiding answering; now, it’s more or less the truth. Wave Two is a good album for that, I think.
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