John Mayer left home at a young age, and his music cries out in alleviation for the kind of hurt that he must have gone through. For the most part, however – and this is a recurring theme – he does not seem to have achieved a homecoming. This does not bode well for any artiste. Much as it allows us, the audience, to savour gem after gem rolling out from his tear-stained guitar (to borrow a phrase from a former lover of his), Mayer is a man whom I cannot help but feel sad for.
The prominence of hurt in his songs makes him stand apart from his more chart-busting peers. There is nothing flashy about him – not the minimal jewellery he wears or the expensive watches with which he knows little else but to check the time – and it is hard not to feel sorry about such an individual. With deep distress resonating from every note he radiates, Mayer is a genius at making despair seem like a feeling that is savoured best with a garnish of soul-searching. He might be the only one doing so in an industry heavily fractured by the need to be seen and not heard.
There is no denying that his debut album ‘Room For Squares’ was an elongation of the extended play ‘Inside Wants Out’. It was only with his sophomore EP, ‘Heavier Things’ that he announced himself to the world, in a manner of speaking. Nevertheless, it will be unjust to brand ‘Room For Squares’ as not having had its moment in the sun. An extremely successful album that gifted ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’, along with the likes of ‘No Such Thing’, ‘Why Georgia’ and ‘My Stupid Mouth’ to the world, it achieved more than a fair share of it.
Fine as they were, the leading singles of ‘Room For Squares’ did not go scouring beyond the usual. It took a lot of digging, and a lot of listening over and over again to unearth ‘City Love’ and ‘3*5’, both of which have become classics in their own right. In the former, Mayer compares his love for New York to a fling he had had. He likes neither the city nor the girl much, but the encumbrances and insecurities of both make him fall for them eventually.
‘She keeps her toothbrush at my place,
As if I had the extra space.’
The latter, ‘3*5’, encapsulates the notion of digital minimalism, much before the first smartphone had arrived, and brings into prominence the ideas of mindfulness and slow living. Mayer sings about going on holiday and leaving his camera behind on purpose, so that he can see the world with his eyes and stop putting it inside the confines of a picture frame. These were powerful observations from a then-23-year-old, and ones that have resonated deeply with me- a strong practitioner of the routines cited above.
There can never be a dull moment with Mayer in the scene. His sophomore work ‘Heavier Things’ became one of the highest-grossing albums of all time (critics say that it was thanks largely to the hype that ‘Room For Squares’ had generated; I feel the sheer splendour that his acoustic guitar delivered might have played a small role in that.)
The opening of ‘Clarity’ filled your lungs with perspective, giving your life a meaning where none seemed to have existed. On the other hand, the likes of ‘Come Back to Bed’ and ‘Home Life’ gave it certain chutzpah that his debut work was missing. Daughters became a work for the ages, even winning a Grammy. Mayer hit the nail on its head with ‘Split Screen Sadness’ and ‘Wheel’, with the latter ending the album on a rather mournful note. It was hard to go back to the actuality of everyday existence with the apprehension for love that Mayer spoke of.
‘And I won’t be the last,
No, I won’t be the last to love her.
And you won’t be the first,
No, you won’t be the first to love me.’
Mayer continued his record-breaking spree with ‘Continuum’, an album as sophisticated as its name suggests and one that requires a perception far deeper than one that a dilettante can claim to possess. ‘Continuum’ remains, to this day, his most critically acclaimed album and one that cemented his name – if at all this was necessary – as a legend.
Starting with ‘Waiting on the World to Change’ (a political-tinged song which incidentally won another Grammy – a far unlikely choice), he moved on to the higher fancies of ‘I Don’t Trust Myself (with Loving You)’. Carrying on with ‘The Heart of Life’, he stopped midway with the glow that ‘Gravity’ seemed to emit. It is undisputed that the latter is his most popular song to date. ‘Vultures’ resonates deeply with those who are struggling to make it in life; it has been a consolation to me when I go through such phases of my own, but it is ‘Stop This Train’ and ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’ that take the cake in this album.
‘So scared of getting older,
I’m only good at being young.
I play the numbers game to find a way
To say that life has just begun.’
Next came ‘Battle Studies’, and to many aficionados of modern-day guitar playing, this marked the maturity that Mayer reached with one foot on the moon, as it were. Little could go wrong with the curmudgeonly morsels that ‘Who Says’, ‘Half Of My Heart’ and ‘Heartbreak Warfare’ seemed to emit. However, what broke the glass ceiling, even for Mayer, in both songwriting and pyrotechnics with his instrument in hand, were ‘Edge of Desire’ and ‘Assassin’.
The latter began with the riff of a ukulele, showing that the genius was willing to take on new risks and experiment beyond the tried and tested. Not for the first time had Mayer broken barriers and extended beyond his limitations. The former is perhaps the most famous amongst his least-known songs, and one whose lyrics can melt the coldest of hearts.
‘Steadily breathing, silently screaming,
I have to have you now.
Wired, and I’m tired, I think I’ll sleep in my clothes on the floor.
Maybe this mattress will spin on its axis and find me on yours.’
Then came the shocking discovery of a granuloma in his vocal cords, which eventually led Mayer to withdraw from the public scene for a while. This was when the finishing touches to his fifth album ‘Born and Raised’ were being put, amid the stupefaction of those of his fans who were waiting to see him live on tour. The first surgery to remove the granuloma was unsuccessful, and naturally, Mayer underwent a second. This time it was successful, and ‘Born and Raised’ went ahead. The album did not do too well, and Mayer went back into his shell.
‘Paradise Valley’, which came after ‘Born and Raised’, did not seem much different, apart from the pangs of loneliness that had now begun to form the refrain in most of his creations. These albums disappointed at a commercial level and must have led Mayer to question the futility of it all. He had seen the highs that ‘Heavier Things’ created, ‘Continuum’ embraced and ‘Battle Studies’ sustained, and it was now difficult for him to embrace the fecund mediocrity that fate had so unkindly decided to bestow upon him.
In that sense, the splash that ‘The Search for Everything’, his next (ominously titled for a rather loose-concept album that revolves around the theme of a romantic breakup, presumably with Katy Perry) made was bewitching. Mayer sang of heartbreak and of picking himself up from the pieces that he had virtually turned into, but he also spoke of hope and how he could just about see the light in the evening of a world that had increasingly grown dim by virulent attacks of myopia.
Mayer, as it were, had never seen the other side of the kind of music that he had created in the past; it was humbling for his audience to know, and sadder still to comprehend, that he could make do with the bass guitar just as well as he could with the acoustic one. ‘The Search for Everything’ was soft, yet hit the right notes when synchronised with his attempts at frugality. Mayer, perhaps in the right sense of the word, had come home.
This essay neither praises nor critiques his latest, ‘Sob Rock’, because it is only about a year old. I do not believe that an album can draw an audience, in the right sense of the word, in so little time, and no serious listener of music can be expected to be clad within its charms just as quickly. Albums provide histrionic meaning to the lives of their creators, and more so to their patrons, and judgement – principled or visceral – can be passed only when significant time and distance have passed between the two.
It would be doing the artiste – as well as the album – inequity to sing accolades without concurring to the kind of impact it is bound to have over the years. Only those that age gracefully have the audacity to mull around the playground, and there is little doubt in my mind, from its early reception, that ‘Sob Rock’ intends to do so. To be able to break the charts in an arbitrary sense, Mayer would have to outdo himself, as it were.
Early Mayer, many critics declaim, had all the makings of legends, while the one who has matured bears the hallowed mark of wisdom and mellowed-down intelligence. There is little that is not ebullient about the man – and there have been instances where he has gone overboard with his antics – but there is a deep mind and beautiful soul that resides within those boyish good looks. Like red wine, Mayer seems to be getting better with age. Nobody can ignore what he has given to this world and it will be unfair to classify his works along with those of his less illustrious counterparts.
Mayer is an intellectual, yet melancholic songwriter; it would take someone a little less humane to not feel the pain that his words declaim. He is a lonely soul – despite media reports of his cataclysmic history with the who’s who of Hollywood – and it is hard not to feel sorry for his aching voice and lonely guitar when he reaches out. It seems to me, as it does to millions of his other fans that his is a voice that lends sanity in a world that has long since devolved into a cage meant solely for unwarranted puerility. In most songs, he questions himself and his failure at not having become the man that he had set out to be; this is the foundation stone on which the majority of his works rest, and where the genius of his self-realisation lies.
The unjust idea of music being devolved to being only about making money or recording chartbusters had always seemed revolting to Mayer, and it showed in his germane behaviour each time he took to stage. It was often the avant-garde and astute listener who related to him and sang along; he represented an idea that was deeper than something that was purely visually pleasing. In that sense, he is the true successor to Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Angus Young and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The themes that Mayer tackles in his creations are prosaic inasmuch as the phrase can afford itself levity. Mortality, heartbreak and unrequited love feature prominently, as do self-doubt, self-actualisation and a resolute (sometimes unrealistic) optimism in the way he looks at life. It occurs to me that the environment he comes into regular touch with is scrutinised with atrocious assiduousness, with the consequent corollary one of endearing melodies. Poignant to a fault, and yet as convivial as the amiable moonlight that filters onto my desk on a rainy July night, John Mayer is as morbid or as cheerful as you allow him to be. In a way, he is a reflection of your inner self.
Featured image: Reuters