Continuum: Revisited

John Mayer’s understated guitar exploration holds up 10 years later — and is better than you remember.

The very best art exists in a universe displaced from time, yet feels very much of the moment — creeping back every so often to offer fresh perspective. Great art grows with you. It comforts you like an old friend. It’s therapy. In the right light, we mistake it for wisdom.

The human condition only exists with what we have, at the time we have it, and wherever we find it. We cannot (yet) teleport. We cannot exist apart from ourselves. We cannot halt time’s swift, relentless attack on our bodies and memories. We cannot say goodbye soon enough or late enough, or gauge with 100% accuracy right from wrong, love from lust, important from urgent. These are the themes John Mayer wrestles with on Continuum, which was released September 12 … 2006. Ten years ago.

After spending a half decade as the heir apparent to Dave Matthews — Inside Wants Out, Room For Squares and Heavier Things all map with first-generation GPS precision to Remember Two Things, Under the Table And Dreaming and Crash — Continuum represents Mayer’s break with the goofy, snarky persona (on wax, at least) who made music frat-boys played in their bedrooms with the lights out to the girls they loved, and instead made music for NPR enthusiasts to cry alone in their bedrooms to when the girls they loved no longer loved them. Sometimes, those were the same people … just two years older.

Continuum is not, as often believed, Mayer’s first “adult” album. That would be the scorching live recording Try! An album cloaked in Blue Note earnestness, oddly billed as the John Mayer Trio, and played with musical mercenaries Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan, with an unmatched ferocity relative to Mayer’s entire discography. That was a professional sizzler and is, still, Mayer’s best record. It could have been a harbinger for a new direction of Mayer as breakneck blues troubadour in the vein of Jimi Hendrix meets Steve Winwood meets B.B. King. It was almost that: Continuum recalls all of those artists including a shockingly capable, if spit-shine-glossy, cover of Hendrix’s “Bold As Love.” (Which, who does that?) But, Try! — besides being the scourge of every editor trying to use it in a sentence anywhere but at the end — was more of an expansion. It allowed us to become open to the possibility that John Mayer could make a record like Continuum.

With its straight-down-Main-Street shot of adult contemporary pop, dressed up in trappings of blues, soul, psychedelia and Americana, Continuum breezes by at an effortless 12 songs and 46 minutes. It remains the type of album you play in the background at holiday dinner parties, on a leisurely sunset drive by the lake, or while sipping hot cocoa in front of a warm winter fire. At a surface level, Continuum would still be en vogue at your local Starbucks, blending in seamlessly with the whir of the espresso machine and the soft wood paneling. Continuum is too safe to be cool, too detached to be riveting. And that’s half its magic. It’s vanilla exterior works anywhere, without really working anywhere. It’s the off-the-rack three-button blue blazer of albums. It’s only when you put it on that you feel how well it feels tailored for very specific people and moments.

Songs like the “Man, my label exec is gonna be pissed if there’s not a radio hit on my new record” pocket Millennial mission statement “Waiting on the World to Change” and elegiac slide guitar workout “Belief” hint at Mayer’s growing world weariness in lock-step with the (halcyon, by comparison to 2016) dystopia of the later Bush years. Elsewhere, folksy existential ruminations “The Heart of Life” and “Stop This Train” find Mayer coming to terms with lost love and his own mortality. “I Don’t Trust Myself With Loving You” and “Vultures” are smooth A&R that echo later Slowhand and Winwood. Soul approximations “Gravity” and “I’m Gonna Find Another You” offer a half-snickering sadness about holding onto what’s so obviously slipping away. All are mere warm-ups for the wrenching album highlights “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” and “Dreaming With A Broken Heart,” songs that sound like someone trying to sweep tears back into a mason jar.

Lyrically, Mayer demonstrates an uncanny knack — bizarrely, like Craig Finn, who is neither stylistically nor thematically his analog — for diving into mundane details and drawing out the gospel. This is the sound and the words of a man coming to terms with transience, and trying to re-calibrate the abacus to hopefully end up on the right side of the math. The guitar-work toggles between screaming, soaring, sighing and slipping away into the ether. Throwaway lines like “Now I’m gonna dress myself for two / once for me, and once for someone new” resonate like a meta-clever Stevie Ray Vaughan singing about the sky crying while swiping right on Tinder. This is a fully realized, intentional magnum opus that finds an artist finally come to grips with how far he’s capable of going — even if he doesn’t always get there, and even if he occasionally decides to detour down some dark avenues or into dimly lit bars.

Ten years ago, the world was a vastly different place. Pre-Obama, Pre-Trump, Pre-Housing Crash, Pre-Black Lives Matter, Pre-Brexit, Pre-Damn Near Everything. John Mayer was different, too. Pre-Taylor Swift. Pre-Katy Perry. Pre-Twitter. As a snapshot, Continuum represents a charming, subtle transitional era that sounds like it existed in a parallel universe, yet clearly earthbound in its intent and feels as inevitable as our looming death and decline. It’s “not together, but getting there” in the same way that none of us really ever arrive. We just pass through, pass on and pick up the pieces when things break apart.

It’s unclear if John Mayer intended Continuum to be his best record, or the record that fully established himself as an artistic force for generations to rediscover — only the passing of years and withering of our memories will determine its, and Mr. Mayer’s, place in history. What’s clear is Continuum still finds a place in the present, in the here and now, as a piece of work that still has the ability to stay in its lane, know its place, and welcome itself to wherever it lands. The record is still growing, shape-shifting and keeping itself where the light is. If we hold up our end of that bargain, perhaps we’ll be remembered as our best selves and perhaps a bit better than we were. Wherever we end up, with whomever we end up.

Even if our best still hasn’t been discovered yet, perhaps we’ll be able to find solace in knowing we shot for the stars, missed, and still ended up someplace that feels a little bit like an old friend, a little bit like how things used to be, and a lot like home. In the right light, we’ll mistake it for greatness.