Inside Wants Out (1999; Columbia, 2002)
Room for Squares (Aware/Columbia, 2001)
Any Given Thursday (Aware/Columbia, 2003)
Heavier Things (Aware/Columbia, 2003)
As/Is (Aware/Columbia, 2004)
Continuum (Aware/Columbia, 2006)
Where The Light Is: John Mayer Live In Los Angeles (Sony BMG, 2007)
Battle Studies (Columbia, 2009)
John Mayer Trio
Try! (Sony BMG, 2005)
Like Huey Lewis before him, this singer/songwriter proved there was always room in pop music for a well-groomed young man with an ear for melody and an unpretentious demeanor. Mayer's mix of adult-alternative and light rock combined the pouty swoon of Jeff Buckley, the literate class of Sting, and the nice-guy approachability of Dave Matthews. Room for Squares was a deceptively charming record and a perfectly honest reflection of its author: The album soaked in its just-out-of-college white-guy-ness and all the baggage that came with it—the discovery of adult love ("Your Body Is a Wonderland"), the first lament of lost youth ("No Such Thing," "83"), and the difficulty of settling into one's own skin ("My Stupid Mouth," "Not Myself"). Although its unrepentant mellowness started to wear by the end, the record's finely sketched lyrical snapshots and subtle melodies seemed to be grooming Mayer for soccer-mom heartthrobdom. And to his credit, he sounded like he couldn't think of anything finer.
To capitalize on Squares' success without prematurely introducing another new studio album into the marketplace, in late 2002 Columbia reissued Mayer's then three-year-old self-released debut EP, Inside Wants Out. While four of the eight tracks appeared on Squares in a more richly produced form, the remaining, otherwise unavailable songs were hardly throwaways; "Love Soon" and "Comfortable," in particular, stood up to Squares' best material. Mayer's label clearly pushed its luck, however, with the two-disc live album, Any Given Thursday, the third release in three years to rely on essentially the same material. Like most concert recordings, it was padded with cover songs ("Message in a Bottle") and previously unreleased material ("Something's Missing"). Hearing the proficient Mayer and his band re-create the songs live didn't prove particularly enlightening.
By the end of 2003, Mayer (finally!) offered a set of new material in the form of a 10-track studio album, Heavier Things. Playing it safe, he made no radical departures from the success of Squares, aside from the occasional horn flourish and some off-kilter guitar textures. He was still the young preppy trying to figure out this love thing. It was immaculately delivered, although the record's lack of an undeniable hook—no matter how Mayer might have cast it as a sign of newfound "heaviness"—made the effort decidedly less memorable.
Over the next three years, Mayer wanted to prove he wasn't just a studio musician fit for Chablis-sippers, he was also a live powerhouse with enough energy to handle stadium crowds. And he clearly believed those crowds shared that energy—they needed it to get through 2004's five-volume As/Is, a live-set behemoth that included acoustic takes of his hits and three similar versions of 2002's "No Such Thing." (Volume One is now out of print.) Having recently become a columnist for Esquire, Mayer was clearly entering his TMI phase: Both musically and personally, he documented everything he'd done, even if the only difference between many of these live versions and the originals was his smooth-operator stage banter ("This guitar still smells of hickory - sweet, sweet hickory") and the occasional "whoo!" from polo-shirted girls and their dorm advisors.
Better was 2005's Try! , a live set recorded with studio aces Steve Jordan on drums and Pino Palladino under the name John Mayer Trio. This was Mayer's biggest leap into electric blues - a natural step for a guy who'd recently guested on albums by Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton—and he paid tribute to the greats with covers of Jimi Hendrix's "Wait Til Tomorrow" and Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." While he proved he had the chops to pull off the soulful-brunette trick, his rootsy style was more Dave Matthews Band than Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Channeling his idols must have left Mayer feeling like blues vet himself, because 2006's Continuum found this one-time boy genius acting like an old man: After paying tribute to gone-too-soon heroes like Hendrix and Vaughan, he seemed obsessed with mortality. The album was filled with circling vultures, final goodbyes, and laid-back guitar grooves that alternately matured him and just plain aged him, evoking the boomer charm of artists like Clapton and Lindsay Buckingham. But if Mayer was sliding into the adult-contemporary circuit, he was also growing up: With the Iraq War protest songs "Waiting for the World to Change" (a dead-ringer for Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready") and "Belief," he was finally paying attention to the great big world outside his pants. With such easy swing, Mayer offered the perfect escapism for those who wanted the blues without the downer message. This was not the sound of one man's struggle. It was the sound of one man trying to find something—anything - to struggle over.
At this point, there were three John Mayers: the electric-blues stalwart, the bearskin-rug balladeer, and the corporate-sponsored-venue headliner. They all started to sound like the same guy on Where The Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles, a three-disc album and concert DVD that included three Nokia Theater performances, one acoustic, one with the John Mayer Trio, and another with Mayer's touring band. Much of the material comes from Continuum—the only album not yet covered by Mayer's maddeningly completist seven discs of live material—but musically, he's much the same guy, showing off his impressive jazzy filigree and bass-slappin' earthiness. Only difference is that, with film footage from this three-night stint, fans also had backstage access to his private brow-furrowing—in one scene, he worried that his personality was getting more memorable than his music. But such quandaries didn't bother him for long. Soon enough, amidst the ten-minute freak-out "Out of My Mind," he had only one existential question for the crowd: "Can I play my gee-tar? Can I play it LOUD?"
For all his funny-guy charm in real life—here was a man unafraid of dressing up like a bear before shows or praising masturbation in interviews—Mayer's music remained earnest, as if joking around was beneath the dignity of this Berklee School of Music grad. Even the cover of 2009's Battle Studies was so self-serious, it rendered him in black and white, looking like he was trying hard not to crack a smile. Songs like "Heartbreak Warfare"—a synth-slicked, love-is-a-battlefield rewrite of U2's "Bad"—didn't do much to lighten him up. But lyrically, he was looser, riffing on the real-life prankster who regularly charmed the relaxed-fit-khakis off his fans. He admitted to smoking pot on "Who Says?" revealed his wandering eye on "Half of My Heart," even took a few digs at his on-again off-again flings on "Friends, Lovers, or Nothing." All the while, he was demonstrating why those ladies fell for him: whether he was soft-pedaling his way through "All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye" or transforming the blues classic "Crossroads" into a semi-New Wave vamp, the guy was still a virtuoso. Pairing up with Taylor Swift on "Half of My Heart," he even imbued a down-and-out country-pop song with Hollywood-player confidence. "Half of my heart is the part of a man who's never truly loved anything," he sang. But that wasn't entirely fair—with swagger like that, it was obvious that he'd always loved himself. And, having mastered the art of writing breakup songs that could convince new girls to sleep with him, it was clear he'd never be the only one all crushed out on John Mayer.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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