ALBUM: The Search for Everything: Wave I
ARTIST: John Mayer
EP release date: January 20, 2017
John Mayer is back at it. It’s been four years since the pop-rock star released Paradise Valley, and eleven years since his greatest album of all (he’s released six), Continuum, earned him best pop album of the year, along with vast sales. Through his long, successful, and checkered career, he’s been described as Slow-Hand Jr. (a reference to guitar-king Eric Clapton); he’s been called a racist and a womanizer; he’s been a blues musician and a rocker, a pop artist and an acoustic balladier. Millions of Americans have followed his career as he evolved from an introverted, anxious kid in Connecticut to the cerebral, cocky playboy with inimitable playing chops, inspiring thousands of listeners to pick up the guitar for themselves. His musical output has been steady, if not safe and reserved even in its more experimental phases; and, polarizing though his persona may be, almost everyone can agree that he’s made a mark in musical history.
But he’s approaching 40 now, and it’s clear that the man has done some introspective probing in the past five or six years (“I’m a recovering ego-addict,” he said in an interview two years ago, “[and] the only way I can be sure that I don’t relapse is to admit that I constantly have this ego addiction – every day”). Two controversial interviews landed him in hot water some years ago, and he evanescenced shortly thereafter to the unaffected terrain of Montana after living in Los Angeles for the majority of his career. His quieter life seems to be reflective of a desire to detach from the fickle opinions of others, improve his own personality, and reground in something more substantial and lasting.
Mayer recently said that hearing songs from Continuum brings him back to a certain innocence and hopefulness that imbued his life and thoughts at the time it was recorded. It’s understood that Continuum is his best work: it’s well-written, perfectly executed, and sounds totally new (I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, “Oh. This is something special.”). Everything before and after has a certain timid “niceness” to it that feels contrived and overly intellectual – perhaps even a tad condescending.
But upon plugging in my headphones to listen to his latest release – a four-track EP that counts as the “first-wave” of an enormous album project, to be released four songs at a time month-by-month – I heard the same tone hitting my ears that had set his 2006 release apart. This is the Mayer of Continuum, the guy who insisted adamantly on eschewing everything and anything that could distract him from honing his craft and being true to the gifts he’s been given. It’s Mayer borrowing from Mayer. Sure, you’ll hear some traces of Marvin Gaye, Randy Newman, and Eric Clapton. But he’s finally doing what he’s always done best again, and he’s calling it The Search for Everything.
The first track is entitled Love on the Weekend, a tune he says came together in a matter of minutes. It’s a chill, spacious, hopeful tune, albeit a touch linear in the refrain. The song expresses the quiet but irrepressible joy of anticipation, good things to come.
The second track, Moving On And Getting Over, is oh, so funky. And oh, so good. It has a catchy syncopation in the tag of the refrain, reminiscent of a skipping track (for those of us old enough to remember the sound of a skipping track on ye olde Walkman), and stays in the pocket with all the aplomb of any well-made R&B tune.
The third song, Changing, is, according to Mayer, the “spiritual centerpiece” of the album. The song is basic in its structure and concept, but its very circularity is what fans of the old Mayer will love. It is likeably predictable, save for the guitar solo that bursts out toward the end: his playing, here, is expressive, grounding an otherwise wan tune.
You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me, the final song of the set, is one of the best John Mayer songs I’ve heard, and probably the most vulnerable. It’s a love-letter/lullaby to a woman he loves deeply – deeply enough that, more than desiring to possess her as his own, he desires her happiness. It has a Randy Newman/Chris Martin tone to it – wistful, cinematic, sustained. Mayer sings with the purest and most direct tone he’s elicited yet, here; it’s the only song he’s recorded, he says, that he sang with genuine emotion, and he doubts he’ll ever be able to sing it quite like he did on this take (which was the first and only during the recording process). It’s the kind of song that stills you, the same way a sudden down pour of rain outside the window stills you.
Most folks don’t have the time to listen to full 12 track albums from their latest artists, devoted though they may be. But most do have time to listen to a handful of tunes while on their morning run, or on their commute to work. Mayer knows this, and he’s wise to work within those parameters as he releases this album bit-by-bit. This first wave of songs doesn’t disappoint: I myself am already stoked to hear the next set, and am enjoying the anticipation of opening a gift bit by bit, month by month. More than anything, I’m stoked to hear Mayer going back to his roots, and will definitely be tuning in to follow him throughout this process.