Give Life Back To Music 09.22.13: John Mayer - Continuum Posted by Sean Comer on 09.23.2013
411's Sean Comer continues his journey through the music of John Mayer with a look at his 2006 Grammy-winning album Continuum!
John Mayer -- Continuum
There's just no assessing "consistency" after only two samplings.
Granted, two projects producing significantly similar results might introduce a trend. Oppositely, taking two vastly different works from the same artist and snapping to judgment can lead to some reactionary, premature conclusions.
Upon making his third album, John Mayer had shown the world two pleasing but curiously different faces. While 2001's Room for Squares was a non-threatening, charming introduction to his self-conscious introspection, the easy-going acoustic pop lay of the land would be a far cry from his more mature, soulfully inflected Heavier Things two years later, when Mayer took some chances and just began to indulge his more electric, colorful yearnings.
It's these first two albums that made Continuum so pivotal. Which way would he go? He wasn't really any longer the man who wrote his debut. However, Heavier Things was received a bit awkwardly by the people who loved Room for Squares, the ones who didn't know quite was to make of a sound and writing that was richer but not quite so sunny.
Was his sophomore album nothing but a failed experiment that would send him running back to the sonic homeland of Dave Matthews and Jason Mraz? Or was he really simply baiting audiences with something as appetizing and smooth going down as his initial effort, only to turn around and make the kind of music he'd truly always wanted to write but whose genesis demanded some concessions to get a food in the door?
To be perfectly honest, Continuum and the two albums after answered every question and demonstrated that there was more to this man than first met the eye with "No Such Thing".
RELEASED: September 12, 2006
While dissecting and admiring the first two Mayer albums, I commented several times that each bore a subtly apropos cover, featuring Mayer as a clear-eyed and being young man on the Room for Squares cover and standing tall, alone, but matured with his Stratocaster on the front of Heavier Things. Though this album's front doesn't feature Mayer himself at all – well, OK, he's absent from the cover of the version I own but featured in a gray-scale portrait in others – if you'll indulge me a moment of perhaps reading excessive symbolism into the benign….once more, there's a fitting method that plays into the album's identity. Amid an expanse of grey, there's the man's name and a "continuum" at the center – together in the middle of uncertain nothingness, neither light nor dark.
Look, by the time 2006 and Continuum rolled around, Mayer was a man muddled in a state of personal Purgatory. Set aside that he was in the early stages of defining the public personal persona of a man the good people who make Summer's Eve should want to reverse-engineer. By his own admission, he wrote much of the album both while laid up recovering from double kidney stones and while living out of a hotel as he searched for a new home.
To paraphrase his own insights, he even titled the album as he did because he saw himself as a man searching for his rightful role in his place and time. In every single song, it shows. As I've said before, much like with Kanye West, there's disliking somebody, and then there's harboring a disappointing lack of respect for artistic merit.
Maybe that's why I gravitate to the album overall, actually. At the time when it came out, my relationship was back on track but I was unclear about what would be awaiting me once I finally finished my start-and-stop education. I was slowly starting to lose a sense of myself as I played life safe to keep the peace and avoid losing her again. Everything in my life was that big grey void, and I was in the middle of it with a role I didn't understand.
That being said, Mayer's finest hour begins with one painfully banal first track and lead single.
I understand that it was 2006 and every major-label artist's substitute kindergarten teacher's labradoodle's mildly mentally disabled puppy was trying to capitalize on the W. Bush backlash with heavy-handed protest songs that each would swear was going to be the next "For What It's Worth". Few of them were actually any good at all, but "Waiting On The World To Change" is its own flavor of generic.
Sadly, it's a nice, mellow arrangement and even Mayer's finest emergence yet of his blue-eyed soulful Stevie Ray Vaughan pandering in his vocals. The guitar work is even nicely evocative and pointed, even though he keeps it pretty simple. Unfortunately, it's all wasted on unoriginal pseudo-commentary about the media, the military and the cruelties of the generation gap between his and the one that came before. What's even sadder? The chorus for this pithy attempt at a social-movement commentary was copped for a cell phone ad.
Fortunately, it's the album's only stumble. Once he gets that laughable attempt at jumping on a political bandwagon over with, "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)" starts establishing the real thematic bent right from the first line: "No, I'm not the man I used to be lately/See, you met me at an interesting time…"
This track and nearly every one after it sports a decidedly slick polish that complements Mayer's sincere, subdued singing throughout. "Gravity" in particular is a bluesy bit of swaying blue-eyed soul with a bareness that really lets his voice make an impact. Allow me to harp once more on something: the man is a criminally underrated guitarist. Throughout much of the album, he keeps the solos simple, yet perfectly powerful in their context. They add something and speak to each song's identity while giving the whole set a cohesive sound.
Oh, but when he finally lets off the brake…
"Bold as Love" just might be one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix covers of all time, if only because I'm stunned at the unlikely fire that Mayer musters. The quintessential guitarist successor to Hendrix has almost always been Vaughan, and rightfully so. Stevie wasn't just aping Jimi's technique – no, he was a conduit for the very soul of Hendrix himself left behind in the fallen guitar god's music. I remember this being the track in particular that made me exclaim, and I quote, "Jesus, John, where the f*** has THIS been?!" For 4:18 three-fourths of the way into the album, it's like listening to another man entirely. For those who came of age with Room for Squares, it's positively stunning to hear the deft technique on display and the way Mayer's riffs flow from one salvo to the next and finally into a perception-changing eruption of a solo.
It's an inferno of an exception among songs that contemplatively muse over the wounds of love. "Slow Dancing In A Burning Room" deserves a greater place than it receives on the list of true perceptions of a pivotal chapter in a relationship: that moment when one party realizes that it's no longer a matter of a love affair being endangered. The end isn't near. It's here. They're just futilely holding on tenderly and lovingly as ever even as everything destroying itself around them puts them in greater jeopardy by the moment.
Maybe I'm revealing a lot of myself in these words. God knows, I read what some of you direct to other writers when they pour themselves into critiques a bit more unabashedly than you'd prefer. Not a f*** given. It didn't come until four years later, but I can always come back to this song and remember one such moment in my life when I had to make one brave-but-difficult decision.
"Dreaming With A Broken Heart" is much of the same. In fact, it feels almost like a seamless companion to "…Burning Room", right down to following it directly in the album. The gentle piano always reminds me a little bit of the Eagles' "Desperado" in the most comforting of ways. Lyrics like "When you're dreaming with a broken heart/waking up is the hardest part…" further displays Mayer's deepening skills at painting a lyrical picture as he describes a moment of feeling that phantom-limb pang for someone that's long gone and experiencing it so deeply, that you could swear that person is as near as your fingertips.
The last two tracks complete the journey in satisfying, optimistic fashion. "In Repair" is exactly what it sounds like: Mayer finding some resolve to finally fix himself because he can't stand the uncertainty of his own oblivion, but realizing that he's got a long road ahead to walk. Finally, "I'm Gonna Find Another You"…well, he's found his belief that he can love again as he resigns himself in a tune akin to some forgotten, horn-imbued Otis Redding B-side, "I'm gonna sing my way away from blue/I'm gonna find another you…"
It's not that Battle Studies or Born and Raised after this were "bad" or even "inferior" albums. But Lord Almighty, this was the John Mayer we'd been waiting to hear. He always manages to capture himself at distinctive points in his life, but never really gets the credit that he deserves. I've always enjoyed the way he delivers his lyrics, but this is where he finally cut loose and showed what he's capable of with a hot six-string in his hands. He's earnest, sincere, mellow, and hung up on some sweet old soul and R&B. Get past that first ill-advised attempt at activism, and I defy you not to be taken in by some fine songwriting and underestimated musicianship.
That's all for this week. Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.