Weighed down by ambition, Heavier Things fails to shoot the moon

John Mayer’s new album, Heavier Things, really looks like it’s going to be good. Given his track record, you might expect it to be good. I’ve spent the past week trying to convince myself that it is, but I’ve given up. With Heavier Things (and by the way, could you possibly pick a more pretentious title for your next CD?), Mayer seems to have relied too much on the reputation he’s not quite done solidifying for himself, giving us an album that is much more form than content.

Let’s re-cap a little on this John Mayer character. His mainstream studio debut with Columbia Records, Room For Squares, arrived in 2001, the equivalent, in the pop music scene, of a beatnik-y artiste crashing a frat party. Except at this frat party, everyone dropped their Natty Lights and flocked to the beatnik, especially the chicks. Singles like “No Such Thing,” “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Why Georgia” zipped up the charts like electrical currents. Room for Squares sold a ridiculous number of copies. Mayer went on a tour that sold out left and right, and released a two-disc live CD, Any Given Thursday (a ballsy move for someone with one major label album to his name – this move usually screams, look at me, I have soooo many hits!) He even got to date Jennifer Love Hewitt for a while. Life was good. Mayer was popular. He got radio play. He got attention from the media. Teenage girls flipped for him – he was, like, so sensitive, you know?

What’s amazing is that Mayer achieved all of this, and yet, take away all the hype and press and screaming girls and what you were left with was a very, very good album. Room for Squares is full of interesting, creative and well-crafted songs. Mayer writes great guitar refrains and the instruments around his strong playing are arranged imaginatively. The lyrics are good enough to read. Mayer has a unique and gorgeous voice – a combination of smoke, cinnamon and honey. The songs on the album are all built from this foundation, yet each song is completely original, distinguishing itself from the others. They’re like a good group of friends or a good ensemble cast; each one makes the end result diverse and enjoyable.

Mayer is clearly a talented artist – anyone who doubts that should get their hands on Inside Wants Out, his independently produced, pre-Room for Squares, 8-song-album, which features acoustic guitar playing that will blow your mind. At the moment, he is lucky enough to have two things few people get to have at the same time: talent and fame.

And yet, talent only means something if it keeps serving a purpose and keeps evolving and fame only means something if it endures. Mayer may have talent and fame, but he also has only one CD (aside from the new one). He’s shown us that he has them, but hasn’t yet earned them.

Mayer, however, is apparently under the mistaken impression that he will stay famous no matter what. The album jacket of Heavier Things is enough to tell you that. On the front is a black and white picture of Mayer, all by himself against a blank background, with just-got-outta bed hair, cargo pants, a mysterious tattoo on his left forearm, his guitar over his shoulder and across his hip and an artsy, soulfully spaced-out facial expression. Inside the album jacket are a guide to the themes in each song, with a symbol for things like sarcasm or pensivity, a note about where each song was written and a guide to the parts of the body each song targets, such as the heart, head, mouth or hands. Well, I mean, how cool, how artistic, is that, man? Mayer thinks of himself as super-cool and cutting edge, the voice of his generation or something.

These pictures and guides are all very exciting, but it would have been nice if Mayer had skimped on the album jacket and spent some extra time on the songs. Honestly, the songs are not that bad and if this album were by anyone else this would be a very different review. But I’m being hard on John Mayer because Room for Squares showed promise, but Heavier Things flakes out on the delivery of that promise.

One thing Mayer did not do on Heavier Things, which is appreciated, is repeat the formula that worked on Room for Squares. This album has a very different sound, and it’s good that Mayer is experimenting, trying out new things and taking chances, rather than rehashing the same hit over and over. Heavier Things is less pop-based, and not nearly as cheerful and fresh-faced. It’s smoother, more sultry, more jazzy. Mayer test-drives instruments like pianos and horns and the melodies on these songs are mellow and moody, calm and melancholy. He probably thinks he is Maturing as an Artist.

But while these songs lack the pop sound of the songs on Room for Squares, they also lack the vigor and uniqueness of those songs. The songs on his new album do not distinguish themselves from one another and stick in your head as separate entities the way the songs do on Room for Squares. They’re not little musical nuggets. Instead, they all kind of blur together, so that if you listen to the whole CD in one sitting, you begin to feel like you’re listening to a very long song with lots of tempo changes. You’re not surprised by these songs the way you were by the songs of Room for Squares the first time you heard them.

The sound on Heavier Things is decent enough. “Clarity” has some neat piano and horn hooks and an upbeat feel of curiosity. “New Deep” and “Something’s Missing” have appealing, catchy guitar intros that repeat throughout the songs. “Daughters” has a strong, cathartic chorus that you ache to sing along to. And the retro “Come Back to Bed,” with its chorus of begging horns, may not be as sweet or cheery as “Your Body is a Wonderland,” but it’s pretty darn hot – the obligatory middle-of-the-John-Mayer-album-hot-song-involving-a-bed. The lyrics, though occasionally cheesy, are still strong and interesting across the board. For the most part, though, this album is more blah than interesting. Mayer wants to seem sophisticated and suave, but for most of the album he seems exhausted.

And that’s too bad, because I’m sure Mayer has the ability and the gray matter to have made this album work. I think the Big Studio and the barrage of media coverage have their hooks dug deep into the poor guy. Mayer had to get a second CD out fast, so no one would forget about him. Heavier Things was probably rushed to completion. I wouldn’t blame John Mayer for this; I think he did the best he could under the circumstances.

In “New Deep,” Mayer sings, “I know what you’ll say/ ‘this won’t last longer than the rest of the day’/but you’re wrong this time.” Well, I hope he’ll prove them wrong. But judging from this album, I wouldn’t be too sure.

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