Give Life Back To Music 09.09.13: John Mayer - Room for Squares Posted by Sean Comer on 09.09.2013
411's Sean Comer begins his personal journey through the music of the controversial John Mayer with his debut album Room for Squares!
John Mayer – Room for Squares
Try as we all might, there's just no untying the guilt from certain personal pleasures.
They're the secrets we keep that are never all that discreet: books, movies, songs, video games, comics and the like whose fandom is admitted under penalty of inevitable ridicule. The grief is more than you really have the patience to endure, but you'll never deny that there's just something about these things that hits the pleasure-center of the brain just "so".
The very finest music ever made, or that ever will be made tomorrow or a hundred years from now, is crafted of the stuff that cuts right through the boundaries of genre, social norms, backgrounds and even staunch stylistic preferences, only to land squarely on some rare common ground that pulls you into a song because you just have to admit, "It's like it was written straight from my thoughts."
I'll admit to seeing where some of the backlash has come from in the intervening decade or so since he arrived, but I'll just never quite completely understand the shaming especially unleashed on liking John Mayer and Room for Squares.
Room for Squares
RELEASED: September 18, 2001
Story time, kids.
When teens leave high school, a certain "do as the Romans do" survival instinct often takes hold that's just naturally repetitive. As we time and again get shunted down to Lowest Rung on the Evolutionary Ladder, we'll blindly grasp onto anything that, with its prominent display, theoretically would convey to others, "I'm no child, and am, in fact, a creature of substance."
Think of it as hitchhiking across the galaxy always with one hand on your towel. "Towel" equals "hoopty frood."
Music is no different. Suddenly, Time's ongoing tide is imposing its will, propelling you forward whether you're steeled for the rush or not and before you know it, you're beyond your comfort zone of the more saccharine, shallow music that capitulates to the teen years' easy ignorance of real responsibility's gravity. On your own for the first time, you're drawn to anything with just a little bit more weight than you're used, eager to test how much your wings will let you carry.
I first heard Room for Squares not too long after I'd graduated from Jefferson City High School and first set foot onto the University of Missouri-Columbia campus as a freshman Pre-Journalism student. My own tastes didn't want for maturity; I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock and country music thanks to my folks, but developed a mid-‘90s affection for alternative and hip-hop while being constantly drawn to B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Coltrane and Dave Matthews Band.
Still, I knew there was more out there. At the time, I was well on my way to….well, taking what I could get.
We really do live in a world with a sense of humor. Oddly enough, it was one of the more smug, grating musical elitists I've ever chanced to meet who talked up Mayer's major-label debut enough for me to want to give it a spin. The punch-line being, he always has been and always will be the type who will drink the salty bathwater of a barely-making-the-rent independent singer-songwriter as long as he can rightfully tell everyone he meets, "You've probably never heard of them" but I've more than once heard him turn on an artist for so much as mentioning MTV in a SPIN interview without a hipster's telltale derisive snort or casting a Jackass cast member in a music video.
No, seriously. That last one actually happened once. I'm convinced that he read and saw High Fidelity and no one has ever had the heart to explain the misunderstanding to him that Jack Black's bag-of-dicks snob character is NOT the hero.
Still, he's always had a particular soft spot for singer-songwriters. Hell, I seem to recall that in the same bundle of CDs he burned for me, he threw in Ryan Adams' Gold and David Gray's White Ladder, both of which are also enduring favorites of mine. Music was a bond between us, since I was in awe back then of his eclecticism for a 19-year-old.
Yeah, I didn't yet know what "hipster" meant.
Make no mistake, Mayer's first album is actually pretty damn enjoyable for a singer-songwriter's introductory work. Everything from the themes of the lyrics to the title itself reflects a certain comfort in the mid-twenties Dance of Two Left Feet that is still trying to find an adult comfort zone, while realizing that your teen and childhood years are just far enough behind you to be nostalgic for them but not so far away that you can't remember every little thing in the highest definition – the "quarter-life crisis," as Mayer calls it in "Why Georgia".
Mayer lyrically lacks the poignancy of Leonard Cohen, the resonating truth of Bob Dylan or the magnetic storytelling of Tom Waits. What he does have on this album is a comfort that there's sometimes no fault in meditations on the little things, the stuff that's beneath the surface but not so far that he has to really get his hands dirty reaching. Yes, "Your Body is a Wonderland" is easily one of the most sappy, corny love songs ever written. Even then, it's delivered with a certain sincerity that's hard not to appreciate, even if it does seem to be the culmination of Mayer's groundbreaking experimentation in mapping the shortest distance to getting Abercrombie-wearing dude-bros with acoustic guitars in the early 2000s laid like the Alaskan Pipeline.
Even counting what was unsurprisingly the album's most-remembered single, there's just not a patently "bad" song to be found here. What the lyrically wanting ones lack in substance, they at least make up for with Mayer's whisper-light delivery and guitar-handling that's actually a frustrating curiosity in itself.
Very early on after becoming aware of him, I remember a VH1 interview with Mayer in which he mentioned with a child's enthusiasm how he grew up as a big SRV fan, even winning my enduring envy that his dad once brought him along to see the Texas-blues demigod play before Vaughan tragically died in a 1990 helicopter crash. He went on to say that his love affair with the guitar really began with a fascination with SRV's playing.
I relate to that easily. After seeing the VH1 Legends episode devoted to Vaughan's life, I asked for a copy of his greatest-hits compilation for Christmas during my freshman year of high school, and that began my own lifelong love affair with the blues that could even be heard in my saxophone playing as a teenager. Hey, common ground, amiright?
Incredibly, there's not a single iota here of having that profound of a six-string-slinger as an influence. It's one of the album's greatest frustrations: Mayer's playing isn't bad at all. It's just that with every song, there's a lingering intuition that he's holding himself back into a second or third gear, never really busting a soul within the notes that's otherwise only present in the famously hilarious faces he makes while playing live.
See that? Stevie can get away with that. That's because of this…
Unfortunately, it would be another two albums before Mayer himself would finally let off the parking brake and start teasing at greater glimmers of his own ability.
A song, album, artist or even entire genre needn't necessarily shift the course of my soul at every turn for me to love it, though. Take "Room for Squares", for example, Mayer's lead single. Truth be told, I prefer the bare, acoustic man-and-his-guitar version from Mayer's previous independent release, Inside Wants Out (again, with the effective, meaningful titles…) but the more slickly produced take that leads off Room for Squares still just lights me up inside. From his mid-twenties vantage point, Mayer was looking back in his own continuum at a place from which I'd just emerged when hearing the album for the very first time: the nexus between youth's end and manhood's beginnings, and how everything after graduation is at once so much more exhilarating but also so very much more complicated than anyone ever tells us by the time we turn 18.
However, the conclusion stands, there's really just no way of getting that across until you've lived that realization.
When my best friend Anne and I were both at MU, she and I would every so often disagree about Mayer choosing "Why Georgia" for his third single from Room for Squares. At that point, Anne loved it but I really believed "My Stupid Mouth" was the better song. Now, Anne, I know you make a point of reading this weekly, so I'm just going to come right out and admit it: yeah, you were right.
Once again, "My Stupid Mouth" is one of those songs I can dig on pretty easily because it lays out quite plainly something that I've been there and done many a time, mostly over the course of one now-bygone relationship: the moment of failing to tread lightly upon one woman's minefield of a temper and licking your wounds in the fallout. It's a frustrated song, but pretty light in tempo and tone.
"Why Georgia", though….
The funny thing is, it would be years down the road that I would really live the "quiet indecision" that the song contemplates, whether to just scrap it all and start over anew while time is on your side. It's not rife with lush symbolism, and it really doesn't need to be. I know it's perfectly effective in every note because just about a decade after this album's release, there were moments in another life lived in Kansas City wherein I knew I could've given in to desperation on any given morning on the way to work, made a few calculations on my GPS and left a life in tatters behind to be with a woman in Phoenix to whom my heart has belonged for some time. We're always the ones finding the greatest faults in the masterpieces of our lives; how could it be otherwise? We're always so intimately close to the finer details as we caress the canvas with our fine-tipped brushes, too near and myopically focused sometimes to step back and absorb the whole of the picture's grandeur.
Everybody that looks over our shoulders sees the forest's majesty in all its resplendent hues. Ourselves? We just can't get our eyes off the flubbed stroke that just couldn't quite become a happy little tree, and then waste away our time fearing that someone will see the flaw that we can't quite mask.
Amazingly, it's "Neon" that's an under-appreciated highlight. The slick R&B inflection of Mayer's guitar is one of the few moments of this particular album that would come close to hinting at where he could really take his sound when allowed to catch a groove. Other songs like "83" and "Great Indoors" are just nice mid-tempo tunes of introspection, "83" exploring a longing look back to Mayer's childhood with a light, appreciative heart for what's gone by while "Great Indoors" ponders the wonders of forsaking an often-overrated world outside for finding whole intimate worlds apart built for two just by spending an evening in with one magical woman.
To many, it's a "guilty pleasure" album. Sorry, but you can just serve my guilt on the side. It's just so simply relatable, yet delivered in an engaging way. Room for Squares, as the title suggests, is a portrait of an awkward guy that's maybe still just a beat behind life's tempo. Some people have life more sussed-out than that by their mid-twenties. I know that I didn't, though. For as much as more worldly voices like Cohen, Dylan, Waits and others have enriched the way I view myself, people around me and the greater course of life, there's something to be said for someone who seems to want to work out the simpler kinks first.
As the next album's title would suggest, with age comes the weighing-down of that lightness of being. With success and maturity closing in fast, Mayer would have heavier things to churn his mind. Despite a few highlights, it would find him still seemingly holding something aloof from listeners with a sophomore effort that left something to be desired.
Thanks for reading, everybody. Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.