In 2001, John Mayer released Room for Squares, which has since sold more than 3 million copies. Then based in Atlanta, Mayer had recently left Boston’s Berklee College of Music. His songs didn’t have the fussiness that many of us associate with trained musicians, but there was something correct about them. The fast, epiphanic “No Such Thing,” the afternoon valentine “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and the steering-wheel singalong “Why Georgia” all had a very precise mood and their own notion of cool. Neither punk nor prom king, Mayer was a tall kid from Connecticut, driving on the freeways, chasing slippery techno women, inhabiting a world of parents and slipcovers and holidays and gracious Southeastern metropolises; he was smart, inquisitive, articulate, a touch off in places. In post-9/11 America, he could have come straight out of a 1950s J.D. Salinger novel. Mayer’s music was an unexotic oasis — you could hum along to its agile melodies, getting headaches from nothing more devastating than his everyday corduroy conundrums.
With his follow-up, Heavier Things, Mayer offers an equally available yet more sophisticated album. Recorded in New York — where he now lives — and in Los Angeles with producer-engineer Jack Joseph Puig, Heavier Things marks no grand departure from Mayer’s previous calm. Yet it does profit from a few key adjustments. The songs — with the exception of the pop-funk “Only Heart,” whose fast harmonies are almost as hook-mad as those in “No Such Thing” — are sparser, no longer leaping for journalism-style detail and borderline-power-pop melodies. Most of these tracks proceed more subtly, with an emphasis on interior life.
In “Split Screen Sadness,” a guy sits by the phone, arguing in his head with his girlfriend, wondering just what in hell will become of their relationship. As keyboard strings saw jarringly away in the background, the music bears down and Mayer delivers the poignant, descending five-note phrase, “I can’t find a flight.” In “Clarity,” Mayer is unsure how long his current romance is going to stay in flower. In the final choruses, as jazz-trumpet player Roy Hargrove circles around with warm harmonies, Mayer abandons his closely chosen lyrics altogether, adopting a wordless falsetto.
These songs have no trouble lifting off when they want: “Someday I’ll fly,” Mayer sings in “Bigger Than My Body,” propelling a chorus that’s pure radio bliss. In the hilarious-pathetic “New Deep,” a “new man” wears “new cologne” yet still feels blank, as amelodic verses skitter softly, alternating with a bigger, more boldly built chorus. Songs such as “Daughters” and “Come Back to Bed,” which show off Mayer’s Shetland-wool tenor, take more conventional blues-pop melodic shapes.
In one place, Mayer’s new methods swirl into unusual majesty. The song is called “Home Life”; it has an Asian-accented coffeehouse groove in which the narrator makes some odd yet familiar admissions. He says he was “born a house cat.” He likes geometry and architecture. He wants to know the name of his future wife. He says that if necessary, he will acquiesce — but never more than once — to divorce. He longs to sit in traffic. The song appears to be about wanting a house and a wife and kids, but that’s not it. It’s actually about Mayer’s aversion to phoniness. It’s about how, in his deceptively untroubled universe, corduroy can be just as dramatic as black leather.