We kind of wished it had lasted: John Mayer, the sensitive, scientifically precise singer/songwriter with a blues affectation, hooks up with Jessica Simpson, the pop vamp who gained fame in a TV reality show centered on her failed marriage to boy rocker Nick Lachey. It was all so reminiscent of another unlikely pairing from 30 years earlier: Gregg Allman, the gritty, devil-may-care Southern-rock god with a genuine blues pedigree, hooks up with Cher, the pop vamp who gained fame in a TV variety show centered on her failed marriage to boy rocker Sonny Bono. Just as it was with Allman and woman, the tabloid news of Mayer’s fling with Simpson sparked debate and speculation in grocery-store checkout lines across the nation: Can this relationship last? Will there be a John-and-Jessica duet album called Mayer and Woman: Two the Wrong Way? Alas, the John and Jessica show was cancelled midseason. So now we’re back to considering the merits of Mayer’s latest album, Continuum.
Lots of adjectives have been heaped on Mayer’s music, both his earlier Dave Matthews-inspired folk-rock and his more recent forays into blues-pop: supple, sophisticated, mature, restrained. Each of those adjectives could just as easily describe ’70s singer/songwriter Michael “Popsicle Toes” Franks, whose supple, easy-listening jazz-pop never got the level of critical praise Mayer’s music does. Maybe that’s because Mayer’s easy-listening tunes fall somewhere between the smooth vacuous goop of Franks’ food-fueled novelty songs (remember “Eggplant?”) and the laidback depth of an early-’70s-period Allman, Eric Clapton, Marvin Gaye or Fleetwood Mac. Take, for example, Continuum’s leadoff track and First single, “Waiting on the World to Change.” It’s a generational anti-war song in the vein of Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” with one line now even taking on meta-meaning in light of the hype surrounding the John-and-Jessica fiasco: “When you trust your television / What you get is what you got / ’Cause when they own the information / Oh, they can bend it all they want.” But four songs later Mayer is back to the stiff, schmaltzy clichés of his earlier work; in “The Heart of Life,” he moans out a litany of faux profundities: “Pain throws your heart to the ground / Love turns the whole thing around / Fear is a friend who is misunderstood / But the heart of life is good.” Ech!
To be sure, Mayer is a talented singer and guitarist. In terms of musical growth, Continuum is easily his best effort, evenhandedly combining the simplicity and restraint of his folk-rock studio albums with the blazing blues licks of his 2005 trio album, Try! His take on Hendrix’s “Bold as Love” is admirable, and the Stevie Ray Vaughan riffs he scatters across these 12 tracks lend muscle to even the most insipid pop moments. But there’s little emotional meat behind Mayer’s riffs, little sense that he’s ever wept like Duane Allman’s guitar weeps and squalls in “Done Somebody Wrong,” or that he’s ever felt the desperation of trying to hold it all together, as Clapton does when he whisper-sings the vulnerable lyrics to his mid-’70s song “Let it Grow.” In “Stop this Train,” Mayer expresses his fear of growing up and experiencing adult pain, and yet that’s exactly what he needs to do if he’s going to be successful in his pursuit of the blues. Not that he should develop a heroin addiction, but getting dumped at the altar might turn his tendency to lecture (on self-centered tracks like “I Don’t Trust Myself [with Loving You]”) into the kind of raw, universal confessions that fuel white-blues classics like “Layla.”
The problem with Mayer, as it often is for mainstream singer/songwriters reared on MTV, is that today’s record-company executives expect too much too soon. Unlike Allman, Clapton, Gaye or Fleetwood Mac, the John Mayers of the music world are not allowed to experience life or develop personalities before they’re paired with legends and saddled with delivering music of equal merit. A couple songs on Continuum do hint at what Mayer is capable of if he can shed his perfectionist skin and get to the quick of his emotions: the soul ballad “Gravity” and spare, bluesy “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” each offer an equal mix of lyrical and instrumental depth. But all the awesome riffs, clever wordplay and Buddy Guy duets in the world won’t give Mayer the experience or pedigree that Gregg Allman had by the time he recorded Laid Back, or that Marvin Gaye had when he delivered What’s Going On. So basically what we’re left with on Continuum is “Popsicle Toes” with exquisite taste, a smidge of angst and a few cool SRV riffs.
It’s a shame that at his age John Mayer is expected to be so damn mature. He could use a few lessons on bad adolescent behavior from Gregg Allman. Hell, even Jessica Simpson, with her divorce and career ups and downs, has earned more of a right to sing the blues than Mayer has. And, frankly, she’d be more likely to belt ’em out with passion and fire.