Review Summary: An excellent album that, due to an unfortunately sandwiched position, could be called 'John Mayer's 10 forgotten songs'. Oh, wait, Daughters. Never mind...
Prior to the year 2003, the music career of one John Mayer had been fairly impressive. He had briefly attended and dropped out of the illustrious Berkley College of Music. Following which he and a friend that he met at Berkley moved out to Atlanta to start their pursuit of a career in music. They played several fantastic venues in the local scenery and attracted a following. After going solo and appearing at the South by Southwest Festival he attracted the attention of Aware records and subsequently Columbia. It was through them he released his debut and still highest selling effort Room For Squares. After the massive success of his debut album he attempted to follow it up with this record. The only question is, is it any good?
The answer, in general terms, is yes, it is very good.
The album has many highlights, such as the album opener Clarity. The song opens with an electronic beat comprised of a subtle kick drum accompanied by some claps, over which there is a very satisfyingly airy keyboard riff. This is followed up by some of John’s signature acoustic guitar picking and poetic-without-being-obnoxious lyrics. The chorus in this song is a particularly nice touch, as it contains some falsetto singing in an absolutely gorgeously catchy hook. Later in the song horns are added and it closes off with John forgoing his normally carefully constructed wordplay for a climax consisting of nothing more than some wonderful higher register wailing. Another highlight is the lyrically masterful Wheel, which contains some beautifully poignant lyrics about the passing of time, such as ‘You can’t build a house of leaves/And live like it’s an evergreen/It’s just a season thing it’s just this thing the seasons do’ over some fantastically melodic guitar work and beautifully constructed backing instrumentation. Finally there is Split Screen Sadness. This isn’t a normal track for John Mayer as the guitar is rather deeply buried in the mix, with click effects and keyboard being the main focus and later some very moving violins taking centre stage. The lyrics deal with the loss of someone you love due to behaviour of yours that you regret and the debating in your mind of whether they are worth the necessary behaviour changes. It is a very moving song that definitely requires time to grow on you.
Outside of the standouts, there are tracks on here that are definitely catchy and make for fun listens despite the fact that they don’t have the gravity to make them standouts. A clear example of this is the radio staple Daughters. While being pop radio friendly to the extent where it receives airplay on Afrikaans radio stations and having a touching lyrical message about a father’s responsibilities towards their daughters (shockingly), it just doesn’t have the musical depth of other tracks on the record like Clarity. Only heart and Bigger Than My Body are examples of this as well. While both have catchy choruses (with the latter in particular having a wonderful falsetto chorus hook) and they both show off some interesting guitar work, they both display a rather typical rock formula which makes it difficult to attach oneself to them in the way that other songs on this CD allow you to. An oddity in this category is Come Back to Bed. This song was designed to be big and complex, with horn sections and two guitar solos that when played live become John’s suite of shred. But the song overall is just not up to the work of this nature that can be found on Continuum. It shows off John’s blues side adequately, but the ability that he would later go on to master is the capacity to blend blues shred with pop relatability, and with this song that skill just hadn’t quite flowered yet.
Of all ten of the tracks available for listen on this disk, there are only two oddities that could fall into the category of being skip worthy. The first is Home Life. This is a strange, Asian influenced coffee house jam in which the singer makes many confessions about himself and his ideology. For example he declares that he shall only ever be married once, regardless of outcome and that his goal in life is to find a place where he can lay down more serious roots and build a (duh) home life. While this song contains as many hooks as could be asked for, it leaves a strangely unsatisfied feeling in this reviewer when he listens to it. The song just never really reaches any form of climax and never has any moment that could really be considered memorable. The other is Something’s Missing. This song contains some very interesting guitar work and has a valid point in the lyrical content (that something deeper is missing from the speaker and by extension the society he lives in and that material possessions can’t fill this vacancy) but it is just overlong and doesn’t have enough substance to keep attention. This song just has too many different parts that don’t join together cohesively enough, with a section towards the three quarter mark where John lists the things that are present in his life and then some backing singers answer with ‘Check’ like this ‘Friends (check)/Money(check)’ with the idea being that he has everything he could need and yet he isn’t happy yet. Moments like that just weigh the song down and add to its overall shapeless quality.
Overall, this is an excellent album. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the blue-eyed innocence of Room For Squares or the blues based pop perfection of Continuum, it has a very different attraction. That is the attraction of transition. This is an album based off of growing pains and a beginning of the understanding of the finer points of true expression in music. It is an honest look into the psyche of someone who made their mark and has now dedicated their life to unmaking it, just so that they can have the fun of making it all over again. Despite two missteps, the album is still a fun listen that offers the listen nothing more than simple, honest pop.