Give Life Back To Music: John Mayer - Heavier Things Posted by Sean Comer on 09.16.2013
411's Sean Comer continues his personal look at the music of the controversial John Mayer with his best-selling album Heavier Things!
John Mayer – Heavier Things
A fine line separates an artist embracing creative strengths from one that success eases inconspicuously into complacency and stagnation.
Choose any artistic medium. From oils painted on a canvas to the design and development of videogames, the most consistently compelling minds have an intimate understanding of their comfort zones' boundaries, but still manage to add something fresh to even their most tried and true landscapes. As established before, Kanye West has never shied from self-conscious commentary that remarks on the forest around him by contemplating the trees, always tinged with an unmatched braggadocio.
Outside the realm of music, take a look at almost any game in the legacy of Rockstar. Almost each and every one handles pretty similarly, doesn't it? You can hang in there with Red Dead Redemption probably scant minutes after picking it up….if you've previously played any Grand Theft Auto installment from the third game onward. Still, it's a broadly recognizable, comfortably familiar feel that puts gamers at ease as they enter distinctively rendered worlds with distinctively differentiated personalities in each game set apart through thematically aligned details.
To put it much more simply, it's the same principle that defines Capcom during the early-‘90s dominance of the NES as the hammer that thinks everything is a Mega Man-shaped nail, or that explains why every Eddie Guerrero match from his AAA days right up until his final WWE matches had certain earmarks that made you excited to watch him: neither abandoned the traits or habits that made them so celebrated in their fields, but just expanded upon them until those characteristics were parts of a different whole.
John Mayer wrote and recorded Heavier Things from the comfort of new territory, both as a commercially baptized success and just as a maturing man overall. If fans wanted Room for Squares: The Reckoning, bad news awaited them. By and large, he'd moved on, to the bittersweet reactions of many who'd fallen in love with his major-label debut.
While there's little blaming a certain ambivalence, I wonder if it's really entirely fair.
RELEASED: September 9, 2003
Sophomore major-label albums that follow celebrated freshman efforts can be singularly pivotal moments in any artist's commercial progression.
Some artists accept commercial success and widespread acclaim, recognize what clearly draws an appreciative crowd and coast immediately into the same effortless gear that makes an unambitious Madden run the same three or four plays all day long against an opponent too set in strategy to embrace a new approach. Hey, as Kevin Nash once wondered, why walk away from an ATM when it's spitting out money? Consequently, why argue with Big Gimpy when people sporting five times his athleticism and creativity can't boast of a career a fraction as financially fruitful?
That's not entirely said to be sardonic or overly cynical, mind you. The pre-Frusciante Red Hot Chili Peppers present a great case for consistent identity begetting superb finished products. Motorhead and AC/DC have made roughly 500 butt-loads of nearly indistinguishable albums, to the tune of an approximated 5,000 metric-fuck-tons of money that fans eagerly deposit on the bands' doorsteps because….well, because that's all anybody really wants AC/DC or Motorhead to do and they seem to have a great time obliging.
To shine a spotlight on one of my favorite examples….
There. That is every single Wesley Willis song ever made. I love each blessed one, too, from the opening Casio strains to "Rock over London. Rock on, Chicago."
"Different" means neither "better" nor "worse" but conclusively and absolutely, "not the same." Heavier Things is slickly produced in such a way as to suggest that when Mayer recorded the smooth-grooving "Neon" for his 2001 debut, he wrote on a Post-It note to himself, "Next album….THIS." Mayer became a permutation of an alternate – but valid – philosophical approach to following up an introductory album's wildly embraced style.
In some instances, newly minted commercial-darling artists will parlay the warm, lifting updraft following in a widely beloved freshman album's wake into a wealth of enterprising creative capital and leeway in direction granted by major-label benefactors. The prevailing belief in these instances is that there's suddenly a given tantalized and enthused audience trailing the scent of the artist-in-question's freshly gained value in name-recognition, giving way to an irresistible opportunity to make the kind of album that more deeply and truly brings out the kind of art that the artist has always sought to create.
That's the genesis that I tend to imagine eventually begat Heavier Things and its richer direction and fuller sound in the afterglow of the gentler Room for Squares, which one reader last week correctly described as a bit more "fluffy" than much of what came after it. Makes for a decidedly apropos titling scheme, no? Was Room for Squares nothing more than appeasement to Columbia, a compromise made that won the trust to make music that reflected the "real" John Mayer, or simply a genuine portrait of where Mayer really was at the time?
I'm not unconvinced that it isn't really both: the matters that really were of Mayer's heart at the time, just perhaps not quite elucidated in the aesthetic he'd have liked out of a desire to play it safe, win over some hearts and minds, and then ultimately unveil something developed more under his own terms than any other financier's expectations for something commercially preferable.
"Bigger Than My Body" heralded the album's coming as its lead single – to its own credit, an obvious successor in spirit to the blinding sunrise of possibilities drawn by "No Such Thing" – only, this time, with a vibrant undercurrent hinted at on Room for Squares only by "Neon" – while setting a tone for the more filled-out musical construction of the whole album. Here, John's realizing that even he never quite dreamed of the possibilities that now await him, and he's ready to run them down at the first spark to send him upwards or die trying.
His Stratocaster positively hums throughout, with John sounding more unleashed and optimistic than he did on the far more reflective, somewhat insecure-but-tender Room for Squares. When it hit the airwaves, I was ready to begin my junior year of college a different man – again, not really "better" or "worse" – than the unflinching, brazenly optimistic 18-year-old who'd just mourned high school's end when his first album came out. With wounded confidence and a shaky identity, I was trying to mend a recently reconciled relationship with my eventual fiancée that had just previously come to a brief end following a trust-shattering, blindsiding break-up. We'd both left the University of Missouri-Columbia and decided to get back together after both of us were eventually accepted to Northwest Missouri State University. I was the same physical shell, but changed on the inside. Still, I kept coming back to excitement and rejuvenation at new surroundings and having made at least a little bit of sense of reconstructing my personal life.
As exhilarating as "Bigger Than My Body" was as a lead single, the album kickoff "Clarity" is no doubt the truer representative of the sound. Opening with steady handclaps, tinkling keys and the kind of soulful horns that so satisfyingly fill out the whole album, it's Mayer trying to make a deeper kind of sense of the place from which he's now seeing what's around him, and when the next wave of change might come.
"Something's Missing" is written in much the same vein, with Mayer expressing an increasing hollowness in the rewards reaped from his success. It also further puts on display Mayer's revealed preference for the more colorful electric tone of this more ornately produced album, backed by a satisfying organ part that pulls the whole song together. Elsewhere, "Home Life" finds him pining to lay down some stakes and press "Mute" on everything for just a few minutes.
Throughout the entire album, Mayer keeps pressing more and more insistently at his cocoon, letting notes of bluesy aching through with greater and greater frequency especially in his vocals. Listen very, very carefully throughout, and you're likely to pick out a few tics in certain deliveries that sound oddly like Mayer uncertainly copping some of Stevie Ray Vaughan's more prevalent mannerisms. Still, it's "Daughters" and "Come Back to Bed" that arguably make up a couple of my very favorite moments of all 10 songs.
These are the rare instances in which the Room for Squares Mayer presents himself. It's the guy who wrote "Your Body is a Wonderland", and as heart-meltingly tender pop cheese goes, they're family-sized bricks of pure Velveeta. Grill mine up any old time. I love ‘em both. "Come Back to Bed" is just made for taking a lover from behind into your arms, letting her head fall softly back for her cheek to meet yours, and just savoring a few minutes of gentle sways like limbs in the breeze. Mayer borrows just a cup of Otis Redding's soul with just the right filling of Stax-loving horns to blend one lovely little make-up ballad.
He's back to his acoustic roots with "Daughters", and while it's perhaps a bit uncomfortably given the more lecherous tendencies he'd reveal in subsequent years, there's still a certain earnest truthfulness to it even when warning of the aftershocks from Mommy-and-Daddy issues.
Fucks given? Not one. I love ‘em both.
All in all, this was where we met the "real" John Mayer – the guy that would come of age an album down the road and finally pay off the hinted-at potential seen for two albums. The songwriting has grown richer and more satisfying, even if this album wasn't quite so commercially uplifted by the general public as his first. That's perhaps the price of Mayer boldly insisting on a more maturely informed, substantive direction, but for as nostalgically precious to me as Room for Squares was, this is the one that's the more satisfying listening and maybe even speaks to the man I'd be for the next seven years or so.
The best was yet to come, though. On the horizon, John Mayer would make his most accomplished album to date. It would come as he'd begin somewhat of an image crisis, but it would show that beneath that well-marketed soulfulness, there was an ambitious musician reaching to emerge and spread his wings.
That's all for this week. Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.