John Mayer, in person, is startlingly handsome, until he opens his mouth. Except this time, he is not announcing that his dick is a white supremacist, referring to ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson as “sexual napalm,” vividly detailing his enthusiasm for pornography, or blithely discussing his “hood pass” with such ill-advised and charged language that he’s assured of never having a hood pass again, etc. No, at the moment, he is merely singing, which is vastly preferable, and yet there is the matter of his Intense Singing Face. To more emphatically convey the smoldering passion of a line like, say, “I don’t care if we don’t sleep at all tonight/Let’s just fix this whole thing now,” Mayer contorts his mouth into a profoundly unappealing zombie rictus that ages him roughly five decades, a stricken grimace stretched hard to one side of his face, like a grotesque Bill Hader impression of a sociopath or a crazed chimp or something, tossed off with 10 minutes left in a particularly lousy episode of Saturday Night Live.
This is a problem.
Though not as big a problem as that other problem, true. We are live at Madison Square Garden Thursday night, and our star attraction—lithe and dashing, affably erotic, a heavily favored medalist in the Olympic sport of toe-curling—is taking five to read a few signs enthusiastically proffered by preteen girls, lusty moms, and guitar-god gentlemen disciples alike. “A lot of people want to jam,” Mayer observes. (He actually pulled an 11-year-old dude with such a sign onstage in Philadelphia last week. Gave him a guitar and everything.) “A lot of people want my shirt.” (He doesn’t seem to have given anyone his shirt recently.) He jokes about insufficient font size, and squints: “I see something about virginity.” (Audience screams, sex-crazed hoots, etc., though the sign in question rather chastely read, “You’re taking my MSG virginity.”) But Mayer graciously suppresses any lewd reply that might’ve occurred to him: “That must refer to the old record store in Times Square. You’re looking at the clean me. This is the clean me now, people.”
Not a moment too soon. Shut Up and Sing would make an excellent title for a JM documentary, had the Dixie Chicks not already taken it. But this latest round of wayward press antics—detailing his relationship woes/onanistic preferences in the most simultaneously revolting and mesmerizing Rolling Stone cover story in decades, then dropping the N-bomb over lunch with Playboy—seems to have suitably traumatized him as well as us. Far less voluminous Tweeting, and no more interviews. Ever. At least for a while.
And while this is definitely good news (for him, for the country, for race relations), it is, undeniably, also a little sad, that we’re losing (at least momentarily) the ribald half of without question the strangest dichotomy in popular music, between the tuneful inoffensiveness of Mayer’s calculatedly bland blues-pop and the quite literally masturbatory wanton offensiveness of his public persona. If those two impulses ever switch places or, scarier still, somehow combine—if he ever writes and sweetly, innocuously sings lyrics as provocative and deranged as one of his typical interview bon mots (e.g., “Before I make coffee, I’ve seen more butt holes than a proctologist does in a week”)—then the carnage will be unprecedented, visceral, delightful.
The “clean me” is not without his charms, though. Thursday’s fete is a brisk 90-minute bacchanal of radio-friendly unit-shifting; the title track to his new record, Heartbreak Warfare, has a pleasant sort of low-impact anthemic U2-ness about it, though it’s followed by the record’s discordantly surly cover of “Crossroads,” wherein Mayer alternates his Intense Singing Face with an equally Intense Guitar Face. Ah, right: He’s a pretty OK guitar player, too, blasting through a monster solo (more House of Blues than actual blues, but hey) during the slow-burn climax of “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.”
He thus burns through most of the hits, which you know even if you think you don’t. (Again, most of them: We regret to inform you that your body is no longer a wonderland.) The very gentle antiwar jam “Waiting on the World to Change” compels all four teenage girls in front of me—who’d spent the entire set with their arms interlocked, screaming—to raise their cell phones silently in unison, which is as profound a compliment as you can bestow upon someone these days, I guess. The super-cheesy coffeehouse-folk eye-roller “Daughters” is mercifully confined to a solo medley that also includes “My Stupid Mouth,” which was apparently already a problem for him back in 2001.
Still, he’ll always be a better banterer than a rocker. “I’ve looked at all the Twitter replies—you all seem very concerned about your hair,” he notes, thanking us for braving the hellacious, theoretically perm-decimating snowstorm raging outside. “But your hair looks beautiful.” [Screams, etc.] Plus a Chat Roulette joke! Plus, other than the Clean Me thing, the only direct reference to his recent troubles, clearly intended to be tonight’s theme, moral, and pull quote: “I never in my entire life intended to come off like an asshole. Thank you for believing I’m not an asshole. I never once thought it’d be cool to be an asshole. But I guess there’s a lot of assholes who’d say the same thing.”
Streamline that a little, and it’d actually make a great chorus, someday, maybe. For now we’ll settle for Warfare‘s “Half of My Heart,” on record a tasteful little duet with Taylor Swift, who I imagine ain’t too keen on appearing with Mayer anywhere public anytime soon. This, too, is both understandable and a little sad. Our wayward hero is only using half of his heart these days, though it is, in his defense, the half that’s a lot less likely to get him killed.