Give Life Back To Music 10.13.13: John Mayer - The Wrap-Up
Posted by Sean Comer on 10.14.2013
411mania's Sean Comer finishes out his second retrospective with a look at John Mayer's last two albums!
John Mayer The Wrap-Up
I'm taking things in a slightly different direction this week than the one I had planned.
As originally planned, Born and Raised and Paradise Valley would've each gotten their own separate columns extolling why I see them as fascinating evidence that John Mayer has been taken terribly, terribly lightly both purely as a musician and as a songwriter with a gift for connecting with his audience.
So, class, who remembers what happens while men make plans?
In this case, two things rained down upon me. First off, I realized that I didn't exactly have enough to say about each that was exactly of tremendous personal weight. That doesn't mean I don't regard both albums incredibly highly, as I'm about to make evident. Actually, quite the contrary; I'm endlessly fascinated by both, especially when I weigh them against the blues and blue-eyed soul tinges of his first three albums or the heavy-hearted tone struck throughout Battle Studies (which, God help me, I think I've fallen deeper in love with every time I've listened to it in the past week.)
It's just that I respect the people who come back to my column week after week from the bottom of my song-filled heart, thank you all, by the way to stretch a column thin with bullshit because I ran out of thoughts worth reading. The Big Boss Men don't hand down a hard-and-fast word count to me weekly, but I just know when a piece is well, when it's done. With that in mind, I was going to give you a pretty lengthy diatribe about the two albums together and how they've taken Mayer into uncharted but refreshingly clear waters.
That brings me to a second wind of change: I had to change up my next planned showcase.
See, I was originally going to introduce the special place in my heart for the more traditional, rootsy country music with which I grew up. In particular, next week would've kicked off a four-week look at the Dixie Chicks, a trio I've long considered three of the most underestimated, soulful pure musicians and reflective songwriters I've ever enjoyed.
Unfortunately, along came a "tsk-tsk" that I had a feeling would arrive eventually: there's concern that John Mayer's departure from the Music Zone's beaten path just doesn't generate quite the traffic for which the aforementioned Boss Men had hoped. So, given my feedback that the Good Mr. Mayer is just the kind of artist that's not within the choice 18-35 demo, allow me to pander to the Wrestling Zone memes and wait for it waaaaait for iiiiiiiit
Call an audible. Ah, sheesh. It's panderin' time. Oh, well. No shades of Grey here. You get it black-and-white from me.
I don't agree with it. I don't like it. It actually scraps a fair number of features that I had planned, including a few occasional offshoot series. However, I'll come up with something and just make next week a surprise.
Anyway on with the show.
John Mayer The Most Recent Two Albums
Born and Raised
Throughout my looks at Mayer's first four stellar albums, I've repeatedly noted the influence of Texas-blues demigod Stevie Ray Vaughan on the evolution of the music he eventually got to make after the warmer, more accessible and optimistic Room for Squres won him a captivated following.
If Heavier Things and Continuum after that were the blooming of the blues, R&B and soul that could always be heard percolating in his work, then let's reach a touch further out onto a limb and call Battle Studies his Slowhand. At a pivotal point in Mayer's personal life, when it became abundantly apparent that he'd never really grow completely accustomed to dancing in the limelight, he crafted something that was subdued lyrically even when sometimes more exploratory sonically.
I realized while hearing it again that even his guitar's tone full, warm, clean and ever on-point had developed a signature all its own, something few guitarists of his area have ever developed. So what's a man to do when he's come to terms with such a distinctive blend of tender vocal earnestness, introspective bare-nerve lyrics and a sweet vibe from his six-string?
Well, duh: scrap it nearly entirely and take his next two albums into an earthier, more fertile realm.
If Battle Studies is best compared to Slowhand -- don't hate, I'm just referencing approach and not quality or relevance then his next two albums are more akin to perhaps 461 Ocean Boulevard or maybe George Harrison's All Things Must Pass: things that are more unpolished or touched up for mass consumption. In fact, Paradise Valley is ostensibly a country album, liberally seasoned with steel guitar and some adept slide work that practically re-writes the map of what Mayer can do.
Before it, Born and Raised takes on an almost "folk" direction. I could see some disappointment that Mayer maybe feels like he's coasted through this last two albums, minus the stinging heart-string picking of his previous efforts.
Truth be told, though? This right here is why I wanted to write this column.
If I'm to write this as a critic, there's no way I could be as complimentary toward these two as I've been toward his first four albums. This isn't Sean the Critic, though. This is Sean Comer, the 30-year-old music fan who's compelled not by what he finds within the music, but what the songs find within him.
That, my friends, is fucking magic.
Mayer's twenties tumult is a thing in his rearview standing still, but falling ever further behind him as he rides time forward. On these albums, he's a man who's found a measure of satisfaction and even freedom in the things that don't fade with the limelight. In hindsight, I regret that I didn't remark on "Who Says" when singing the praises of Battle Studies. All things considered, the simply strummed little ditty would've felt perfect leading off Born and Raised.
As the title implies, it's just Mayer coming to the realization that there's not a damn thing he has to change if he really doesn't want to, fickle fame be damned.
Who says I can't be free
from all the things that I used to be?
Rewrite my history,
who says I can't be free?
Those windows in life when you really don't so much rebuild as build anew don't stay open long. Mayer gets it, and love him or hate him, he's a man living his life on his terms, not fame's.
I defy you not to love that.
When I first came to Arizona, I left 29 years in the Midwest behind me. My own twenties were an ugly, ugly time that I wouldn't relive in trade for anything that I have now and that's said with the absolute understanding that the last two years of them laid the groundwork for the new life that's on the drawing board today. One thing, and one thing only, was really ever stopping me: thinking that I owed it to anyone to stay somewhere in which I was unhappy.
Are these albums more gentle in tone, especially where Paradise Valley eases into an almost country-Baptist gospel soul in places? Absolutely. Are they necessarily as much "fun" to listen to as anything else? Eh, not quite. As a matter of fact, let's put it this way: if you don't dig latter-day Clapton, these two are probably skippable.
Nevertheless, Mayer gets that it's no one's life to live but his. We really don't have to like it, and we don't even really have to like him. It's just that if we're all about to form an opinion some way or the other, he'd just as soon we form it on the foundation of his barest of bones.