With a résumé that includes a Berklee College of Music education, platinum record sales, über-hot girlfriends, and a mantle lined with Grammys, it’s easy to hate John Mayer. And when he airs his cluelessness for the world to see — in the pages of Playboy, in off-the-cuff tweets, or to the media at large — it becomes impossible to generate any sympathy for the bonehead vivant.
At his worst — unedited, spontaneously glib, notoriously verbose — Mayer is Doofenstein Unbound, a socially awkward collection of body parts, missing the most critical organ of them all: the filter between his impetuous brain and his hyperactive mouth. Mayer’s feet are in his pie-hole so often, he probably gargles with Tinactin to avoid a debilitating case of athlete’s tongue.
Still, a little perspective is required. Mayer offended edgier musical sensibilities with the innocuous pop smear of his early work, and he’s certainly made his share of indelicate comments about former, current, and perhaps even future girlfriends. But he hasn’t killed any of them with a wrench and buried them next to his shed. Or impregnated them and then puked out his rhythm-method-and-scotch rage in a recording studio.
A few things get lost in discussions about Mayer’s shortcomings — most notably that he’s a massively talented guitarist. If you’ve avoided hearing Try! — the 2005 entry by the John Mayer Trio, featuring bass godhead Pino Palladino and drummer extraordinaire Steve Jordan — because you’re afraid of wonderlands and high-school halls, set aside your prejudices and give it a listen. Mayer was into Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan as a teenage guitar student and those influences are deeply ingrained on Try!
There’s also the fact that no one was more bored with Mayer’s pop success than Mayer himself. Just before Try! was released, he announced he was “closing up shop on acoustic sensitivity” and embarked on a series of collaborations with a stellar array of guitar talent, including Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King. He even dipped a toe into hip-hop, working with Common and Kanye West.
Despite his renunciation of sensitive pop balladry, Continuum (from 2006) was Mayer’s attempt at blending commercially viable pop with his love of blues music. It’s largely successful, if sales figures and a couple of Grammys are any indication. But the album is contentious. His record-company boss hated it — a rebuke so painful that Mayer pondered ending his music career to pursue graphic design.
At this point, Mayer started becoming tabloid fodder because of his revolving-door relationships, insensitive remarks about his arm candy du jour, and incomprehensible desire to share his comments with anybody who’d listen. By the time Battle Studies was released last year, Mayer was getting more ink for his dysfunctional romances than his music. Given the musical and lyrical achievement of the album, that’s a shame.
Battle Studies is, in many ways, an extension of Continuum, a further hybridization of Mayer’s smooth pop chops and his inner blues child. But even more than that, it’s Mayer’s lyrical manifesto on his much-criticized love life. You don’t need to be Dr. Ruth or Federico Fellini to interpret Battle Studies; just scan the song titles — “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” “Friends, Lovers or Nothing,” “Edge of Desire,” “War of My Life.”
But one track on the album is more illuminating than the others. In less than four minutes, with a sinewy riff-and-shuffle serving as soundtrack, Mayer lays his soul bare with almost glaring honesty in “Half of My Heart.” He completely cops to the frequent self-absorption accusations made against him: “I was made to believe I’d never love somebody else/Made a plan, stay the man who can only love himself.”
And even though he obviously loves the woman he’s addressing (it could be one of many, but our money is on Jennifer Aniston), he already sees the future of the relationship play out. In the final chorus, Mayer reveals his duality with as much depth you’re likely to hear on the pop chart: “Half of my heart is a shotgun wedding to a bride with a paper ring/And half of my heart is the part of a man who’s never truly loved anything.” That’s a passionate and self-aware message. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a pretty great song too.
So how are we supposed to judge John Mayer? Maybe we shouldn’t. Like most of us, he’s doing the best he can. When we screw up, our family and friends have to deal with the consequences. When Mayer screws up, it’s a headline. Fact is, he couldn’t write a song like “Half of My Heart” if he had access to only 50 percent of it. Someday, he’ll find someone who forces him to tap into the other half of that heart, and that might make an even greater song. And maybe even a greater artist. —Brian Baker
John Mayer, with the Avett Brothers, plays Blossom Music Center at 7 p.m. Tickets: $36-$69.50.
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