September 25, 2003

John Mayer: Pop Crooner Goes Deep

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Heavier Things is John Mayer’s follow-up to the triple-platinum Room for Squares, an album that seemingly came out of nowhere to sky-rocket him to the front of the budding singer-songwriter movement. Mayer and his acoustic guitar were able to come off as both cool and sexy, while at the same time, cute and sensitive to the college girls who adored him (or so I’ve been told). No other guy would have been able to sing about treating a girl’s body as if it were an amusement park without getting slapped, let alone appear sweet the way that Mayer did in “Your Body is a Wonderland.” And somehow, he got guys to buy his album, too. Mayer seemed to have it all: fame, tons of money, the love of millions, even a Grammy. Heavier Things finds Mayer examining his life again, and realizing that without love none of it means anything.

This time around, Mayer has pulled a Dylan and pretty much abandoned his acoustic guitar in favor of an electric. What’s more, he has teamed up with producer Jack Joseph Puig, who has steered Mayer’s sound in a totally new direction — one in which faux-church organs and a Spectoresque wall-of-sound actually have a place in his songs. Mayer has written songs just as poignant and melodic as on Squares, but it is sometimes difficult to notice it underneath Puig’s slick and superfluous production. Fortunately, there is absolutely no filler on the album, and underneath the “heaviness” of Puig’s production we find what made us fall in love with Mayer the first time around: the charming simplicity of his melodies and his introspective lyrics, now deeper than ever.

Within the first ten seconds of the album’s opener, “Clarity,” , one knows there is no room for squares anymore. There is loud clapping, glittering percussion, and prominent trumpet playing, soon to be followed by the pounding drums of none other than ?uestlove from the Roots. Production aside, the song is about seeing things the way they are, but this “clarity” that Mayer sings of is only fleeting. His soaring vocals and melodic cries express his uncertainty about where his life is headed: “But this morning there’s a calm I can’t explain/ The rock candy’s melted, only diamonds now remain/ by the time I recognize this moment, this moment will be gone.” Unfortunately for Mayer, this moment is in fact soon gone, for the rest of the album finds Mayer very unclear indeed.

“Something’s Missing” is Mayer at his most introspective. “I’m not alone/ I wish I was/ Cause then I’d know I was down/ because I couldn’t find a friend around to love me like they do right now.” He is lonely and knows he is lacking something in his life, but at the same time, realizes he has everything (and more) someone could really ask for. In perhaps the most memorable lyric on the album, Mayer makes a list, checking off everything he seems to have going for him. “How come everything I need always comes with batteries/ What do you think it means.” It means that Mayer needs to listen to another John who once sang “All you need is love.” As Mayer begins to realize in “Home Life” — his declaration of yearning for “completeness” — he is nothing without it.

The centerpiece of the album is “Daughters.” The strongest song on the album, it is no coincidence the track is the most lightly produced as well, basically just Mayer and his acoustic guitar. Built around a great hook, haunting riffs, and his soft, sweet rhythm, “Daughters” is simply beautiful. With his wonderfully off-center vocals, Mayer sings about the effect that close people in your life can have on you: “So fathers be good to your daughters/ daughters will love like you do/ girls become lovers who turn into mothers/ so mothers, be good to your daughters too.”

The album ends on a fitting note with “Wheels.” continuing the motifs of home and flight that have pervaded the album. Mayer sings about how the things in his life are constantly changing and how he wants this unfortunate natural progression to cease. The song ends with the instrumentation gone and an optimistic Mayer singing a capella about his future: “I believe that my life’s gonna see/ the love I give returned to me.” This is the first time on the album that Mayer is actually confident about finding that home life and love he craves. Hopefully, next time around we’ll find Mayer “heavy” in love, and light on the slick production.

Archived article by Jared Wolfe