"Who did you think I was?" John Mayer asked on the opening track of Try!, the live album he released last year as one-third of the John Mayer Trio. He's answered the question eloquently on Continuum, a smart, breezy album that deftly fuses his love for old-school blues and R&B with his natural gift for sharp melodies and well-constructed songs.
With this album, the twenty-eight-year-old Mayer displays a new command of all his musical sources. The Memphis-soul touches that seemed like a genre exercise on Heavier Things' "Come Back to Bed," from 2003, achieve full flower here. The role of blue-eyed-soul singer suits Mayer — his falsetto choruses on "Vultures" are sexy and assured. His breathy vocals are firmly at the album's center, and the R&B tradition he's mining lends weight to his pop flourishes. As for the vulnerability and openheartedness soul music encourages, well, that's part of what all those young female fans loved about Mayer in the first place.
Last time around, Mayer submerged himself in a trio with older, established players like bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan, and indulged the guitar-hero fantasies he'd nurtured during his teen years spent listening to Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was a way of shedding the heartthrob mantle that hits like "Your Body Is a Wonderland" and "Daughters" had put on his shoulders. Room for Squares, his 2001 debut, had sold more than 4 million copies, and Heavier Things, its 2003 follow-up, had sold 2 million, but Mayer saw his success as a life sentence to pop idoldom. He desperately wanted out.
Palladino and Jordan (who co-produced Continuum with Mayer) are on hand, but this is decidedly not a JMT record. Other notable musicians turn up — including guitarists Ben Harper, Charlie Hunter and James Valentine (from Maroon 5), jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and bassist Willie Weeks. The power-trio flexing is gone, and that's to the good. As a guitarist, Mayer is more adept at the terse, lyrical, cleanly articulated solos he takes on songs like "In Repair" and "Gravity" (which, along with "Vultures," also appeared on Try!) than the breakneck improvising he flashed with JMT.
None of Continuum's twelve tracks accelerates above midtempo, and the predominant tone is modest and reflective, though the album occasionally refers to big issues. "Waiting on the World to Change," the opening track and first single, is a moving apologia for Gen Y's seeming apathy: "It's not that we don't care/We just know that the fight ain't fair," he sings after airing some anti-war sentiments and a sharp media critique ("When you trust your television/What you get is what you got/'Cause when they own the information/They can bend it all they want"). The song's sly echoes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye evoke a previous era's war and protests. The cool social observation of "Belief" — as well as its delicate opening guitar figure and the chanted harmonies of its bridge — recall Sting, another of Mayer's idols.
Damaged relationships litter Continuum. "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)," "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room," "The Heart of Life," "Dreaming With a Broken Heart" and "I'm Gonna Find Another You" all depict lovers who betray each other and, occasionally, themselves. Ever self-conscious — even obsessive — about his place in the world, Mayer takes his own emotional temperature on "Stop This Train": "So scared of getting older," he sings, "I'm only good at being young."
Forget "Who did you think I was" — Mayer's detractors will likely be thinking, "Who do you think you are?" when they hear his (capable) cover of Hendrix's "Bold As Love." No matter. Mayer is right not to worry about pleasing or offending them. Continuum is just the current stage in Mayer's trip, but he has taken a big step toward finding himself. As he sings on "In Repair," "I'm never really ready . . . /I'm not together, but I'm getting there."