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There is but one reason why John Mayer will always be John Mayer, and that’s because John Mayer is the only one who can do John Mayer. Which is not to say he’s an original, as much as that the Berklee School of Music chops John Mayer flashed on his 2001 debut, Room for Squares, can’t be translated via a subway busker’s fakebook. So, whereas the ’70s singer-songwriter tradition churned out material that provided the most efficient means for a vocabulary-deprived young man to feign sensitivity—not to mention scoring copious amounts of tail—any swoon that John Mayer inspires won’t ever be soaked up by some two-chord acoustic-strumming putz in a burlap poncho.
But his appeal isn’t simply about being more cherubic, and less fraught, than Cat Stevens or James Taylor or Paul Simon. Fact is, Mayer isn’t cut from a dormitory troubadour cloth at all. Rather, he’s the product of an era where guitar-school pedigree alone can’t possibly cross over to pop stardom. But that’s not to say he’s restrained from a persona that’s completely and utterly full of itself.
All those sweet nuthins heaved on “Your Body Is a Wonderland” were about his gratification, see—besides, a gal ain’t gonna provoke that deluge of boudoir aphorisms by showing off her hipbone in public. A song title like that couldn’t possibly work as a construction-worker catcall.
Modesty gets damned, however, for the first single from Heavier Things—”Bigger Than My Body,” a ham-handed, palm-chafing, kitten-killing, unsaturated wank with plenty of licks, none of which are directed at open wounds. Unlike Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, Mayer offers no hypersensitive melodrama for the sorority sisters to chant along with. His watered-down Stevie Ray Vaughan side makes him less reprehensible than dehydrated coyotes like Pete Yorn or Elliott Smith, aligning instead with the imperious smirk of Dave Matthews or David Gray, only with a full head of hair. Yet, this 10-song disc leaves one wishing that Mayer disposed of the deep-diaphragm incantations on half its tracks in favor of spacious instrumentals, even if such a tactic would counter the historical dilemma faced in marketing any fretboard fetishist to the masses. Whether he’s staring down breakup-induced despair (“Split-Screen Sadness”) or pondering the day he gets divorced (“Homelife”), sometimes the words get in the way. While he’s technically adept at playing the blues, it’s perfectly clear the only heartache Mayer knows how to emote comes the morning after a night of hearty partying. But would a fella this cute really be that disingenuous?
So unexpectedly, what a generation ago might’ve streamed under the rickety bridge between smooth jazz and new age—or Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—has become perfectly positioned for the teenpop fallout. The first widely heard ditty from Mayer, “No Such Thing,” rousted about holding bittersweet expectations for one’s high school reunion—a lyrical premise that’d only hold water with a certain age group in a stubborn job market. While the thematic schematic of Heavier Things packs enough languor to brace his adoring audience for the imminent sucker punch of a quarter-life crisis, it doesn’t mean Mayer is done with smug.
For that reason, “Daughters” boasts an intriguing theme—a sideways “Cat’s in the Cradle” casting an evil eye toward parental units who’ve downloaded their grief on girls who, in turn, are inevitably smitten by the kind of rock star John Mayer represents. Which is to say a dude who can at least pretend to grasp the concept of contemplation, even if he’d rather be noodling on the Stratocaster than filling the emotional holes carved by a deadbeat dad. Little do Mayer’s most ardent adorers yet know, but the biggest problem with falling for a guy who’d rather not deal with baggage is that he’s got a massive ego of his own still left to unpack. Heavier things, indeed.