John Mayer - Continuum
Columbia Records by Keith Boyd 10.10.06
Although I am loathe to admit it, I’ve always found myself wanting to hate John Mayer. I’m not proud of this fact but there is something so wrong about the phenomenon that he is. Model good looks, media darling and paparazzi exposure, starlet dating, blah, blah, blah. A few years ago when he came into the periphery of my awareness I instantly lumped him in with the wave of other horridly young wannabe blues related whelps being pushed down the hype-media poop shoot. There was Johnny Lang, Fiona Apple and a few others too painful to mention.
The first put-off is the press hype about these artists’ age. They get the prodigy label and spend the next several years awkwardly growing up in front of our eyes. Finally they either age up and bust loose with something real, or crash and burn into a haze of drugs, alcohol, legal problems and bankruptcy. It’s so common a told tale that it’s become a sort of hackneyed plot line for everything from CSI to reality TV shows.
So what do I have against prodigies? Well, nothing actually. I find the varieties of human ability to be fascinating. But where I draw a line is in placing too much value on the output of artistic prodigies in particular.
Art (music included in that category) is a product of many forces materializing at once. Among these are elements of hand-eye coordination, and an ability to concentrate and bring into form that which was previously an idea. Also there is technical virtuosity. But the great cohesive bond for these elements, the one that breathes life into them and makes them genuine, is experience. Life experienced over time with its richness, sadness, textures and change. That is something that no prodigy can bring to their art. It’s this lacking that turns me away from the Charlotte Churches and Johnny Langs of this world. I am pleased that they have perfect pitch at age 10. I am astounded that they are so technically gifted at age 14, but I am just not that interested in listening. I almost never hear the weight of life in their output. I don’t hear the pain of heartbreak or the edge of fear created by deaths in the family. There is something that comes up sounding thin to me, and that makes the aping of a genre with such proficiency seem all the more like some sort of freakish trick.
I know what people are thinking, “What about Mozart? What about Beethoven?” Well, what about them? Mozart may have written “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at age two, but he composed much richer masterworks at age twenty. Also, those were different times. Childhood was shorter.
These days it seems that no one considers themselves an adult until they hit the age of 35 or so. Consequently, we are, in some senses, much less mature than people of the same age from eras past.
So this inherent bias obviously is a part of the same filter I experienced the music of John Mayer through. I found (and find) his first several releases to be mostly dismissible pastiches of cheesy blues and romantic ballads. They convey that same malnourished, yet arrogant aping of form that makes them fall beyond the scope of my radar. Thankfully, John Mayer has outlasted the initial hump of his career and in doing so, brings something with some grace, direction, and yes, experience. It came as a shock to me to hear how good his new disc, Continuum, actually is.
There is something different at work here. The guitar tone is an excellent Fendery twang that mixes elements of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton, while never succumbing to mimicry. Mayer’s voice has matured and packs a bit more growl to it. The arrangements are thicker and more muscular. It seems that John Mayer’s testicles have finally dropped, and he’s become a man. This album does that classic trick of being varied and drawing from a broad palette while maintaining a continuity that bears an artist’s unique stamp. Other musicians expert in this are Steely Dan, Neil Young, and the aforementioned Eric Clapton.
Continuum is a great and thoughtful release from an artist finally coming into his own. Few CD’s these days are as expertly produced and musically pleasing to listen to as this one. Hopefully this is a sign of great things to come. If the quality and depth of Continuum is any indication, John Mayer has ample reserves to start drawing upon. As a final note, anyone attempting to cover Hendrix, as Mayer does here with “Bold as Love”, had better be ready to bring it. Well, guess what? He does! A great, restrained, and meaty version is the topper on this set of surprisingly good music.
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