Taking a Deep Dive into the Music of John Mayer
In the early aughts, an energetic singer-songwriter from Connecticut by the name of John Mayer crashed onto television screens with his off-kilter humour and unforgettable pop hooks. To many, he may be the ‘Your Body is a Wonderland’ guy. To others, John Mayer is known as the celebrity marred by controversy by tabloids over his romantic misadventures. That is to say, all of this detracted from the fact that Mayer is, unquestionably, a musical powerhouse in his own right. In the twenty or so years of his career thus far, his body of work has displayed a depth of musicality unmatched by many of his contemporaries. Though no longer a perennial mainstay on the Top 40 charts, his presence can be felt in the new generation of superstars that he mentors (Shawn Mendes) and in quiet collaborations (Khalid). With new music being teased for the coming month and a full-length album this summer, we invite you to set aside a few minutes to get reacquainted with Mr. Mayer’s impressive discography.
2001 to 2003: Room for Squares and Heavier Things
When ‘No Such Thing’ hit the airwaves, a then-fresh-faced Mayer perfectly encapsulated the boy-next-door archetype. The breathy vocals and contrarian lyrics like “They read all the books but they can't find the answers” were instantly relatable to young adults seeking respite from social exclusion or unrequited infatuations. His first major label outing, Room for Squares and subsequent follow up, Heavier Things made him a bona fide pop idol with the hit single ‘Daughters’ nabbing him two Grammy Awards in the process. These two records are to this day adored for their introspective assessments of loneliness and early romantic foibles. Deep cuts like ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ and ‘Wheel’ still resonate like the lump in your throat, looking out of a rainy window on a long train ride. Though it is now abundantly clear that Mayer is one of the most influential guitarists of our time, crowd favourites like ‘Neon’ provided an early glimpse into his technical prowess and dexterity on the instrument.
Pivoting from the pop sound that made him a household name, Mayer changed direction to produce an album that unabashedly wore its blues influence on its sleeve—hints of soulful licks in the style of the sadly departed B.B. King paired with the unnerving rawness of his childhood hero, the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan. The cohesive tracklist converted even the most critical of skeptics, all whilst his massive hits ‘Gravity’ and ‘Vultures’ climbed the charts. Mayer’s contemplative side is ever present, with slow burns like ‘Stop This Train’ reexamining the trajectory of his success weighed against a desire to not lose sight of family and personal connections. On the very next song, ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’, listeners witness the inevitable demise of a relationship under the lens of a hyper self-conscious songwriter, feeling every part of the crushing defeat that is to come despite the best intentions of the parties involved. Sandwiched between tales of heartbreak are glimpses of levity found in ‘Belief’, not to mention a soaring melodic guitar solo. The final three tracks journal his recovery, concluding with a hopeful declaration to self in the form of ‘I’m Gonna Find Another You’. Yet, this denouement is tinged with a lingering sense of melancholy belying the self-doubt that pervades even the most valiant of attempts to move on.
2009: Battle Studies
It’s apparent from the first few pitch-bending notes of this record that Mayer was enjoying the process of experimenting with new sonic ideas. A soft string section permeates through the stillness to give way to an ethereal riff that bounces over the majority of ‘Heartbreak Warfare’, which at the time was accompanied by a three-dimensional music video that was activated by augmented reality. As the gentle flicking of the tremolo subsides, the album launches into a heart-wrenching ballad lamenting the unfortunate truth that ‘All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye’. Here, JM switches back and forth from the falsetto dominating the chorus and the wailing slide solo mimicking his cries of frustration. ‘Assassin’ plays out like a cautionary tale, chronicling his comeuppance after employing calculative tactics during a budding romance. The sequence of notes that formed the basis of ‘Edge of Desire’ originated as a guitar exercise, but proved to be captivating in its unusual 6/8 time signature. Against the subtle reverb in the foreground, John simultaneously explores the emotional turbulence of manic yearning and the fear of being forgotten. Including a cover of a song by a personal hero and friend is typically a dicey proposition—especially if that person is Eric Clapton—but Mayer does the tune justice with an in-the-pocket rendition of ‘Crossroads’ to which he peppers with enough flair to potentially pass the classic off as his own. ‘Friends, Lovers or Nothing’ feels like the metaphorical curtain call, comprising a proclamation moulded by lessons learnt that is then supplemented with an open-ended outro, leaving his state of mind somewhat up in the air.
2012 to 2013: Born and Raised and Paradise Valley
Following the constant hounding from the press for tabloid fodder, John retreated and settled in idyllic Montana. Though some could classify the music from these two albums as a reinvention, that may be an oversimplification. The shift to country and folk genres is evident from the easygoing pace of the respective opening tracks, ‘Queen of California’ and ‘Wildfire’. Mayer sounds comfortable in his skin, and the change in scenery is clearly reflected in the vast and airy production with nothing sounding overly compressed or manicured. ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967’ tells the fictional tale of a man crossing the ocean in a homemade submarine despite doubters in his inner circle, only to be hailed as a hero by friends and family when he successfully surfaces in Japan. For a story that is not based on any real life event, it carries with it surprising emotional weight and an allegory that is universally understood. Continuing with the nautical theme on Paradise Valley, ‘I Will Be Found (Lost At Sea)’ is a piano-led ballad with an uplifting message alluding to the dichotomy of being a well known persona that is habitually misunderstood. Meanwhile, ‘A Face To Call Home’ ends Born and Raised with a rousing crescendo that feels like the happy ending of a film - open ended but giddy. These two albums, only released a year apart, may not have the mass appeal of other releases but for patient listeners will forever remain underappreciated gems in his discography.
2017: The Search for Everything
After a longer than usual hiatus, John began to tease new music via what he described as “waves''—collections of four or so songs to be released as capsules in anticipation of a full-length album. Eventually, the full-length The Search for Everything landed, kicking off with ‘Still Feel Like Your Man’, a bright pop groove reminiscent of his initial chart topping singles, only more evolved. “I still keep your shampoo in my shower in case you wanna wash your hair” is a tongue-in-cheek lyric that seeks to conceal the struggles that John faces once an old flame stops visiting, and having to cope by leaving little keepsakes to extend the illusion a little longer. The twang on ‘In The Blood’ shows that John has not abandoned his Born and Raised / Paradise Valley experience, blending in seamlessly on country radio and gaining him some new fans in unexpected demographics. Mayer gets to play guitar hero once again on tracks like ‘Helpless’ and ‘Rosie’. The former plays like a modernised blues track with a chorus that demands gentle head popping, whereas the latter is a smooth jam that for the first time incorporates a cheeky line of Spanish. Following the funk-infused ‘Moving On And Getting Over’ sits a song that JM has publicly spoken about not being able to play live without ending up on the floor in a pool of his own tears. ‘Never On The Day You Leave’ delivers vulnerability in abundance, exposing feelings that are intimate and revealing—but again relatable to all that have experienced a particularly traumatic break up.
Prior to the success of Continuum, John teamed up with industry legends Pino Palladino (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums) to form the John Mayer Trio and quietly released a live album entitled Try!. Many of the songs eventually made it onto the next studio album, but the outliers were a demonstration of the exceptional capabilities of the trio. The single ‘Who Did You Think I Was’ hits like a train as the grunt of the piping-hot single coil pickups cut through the mix, recalling the excitement of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. There is even a fantastic rendition of ‘Bold As Love’ on the album as an ode to the rock ‘n’ roll icon.
2015 to present day: Dead & Company
Devotees of the eclectic psychedelic band, The Grateful Dead, are notoriously welcoming but skeptical of anyone who tries to fill the shoes of frontman Jerry Garcia, who passed away in 1995. As with most radical changes, the announcement that JM would be joining the crew was met with reservation and trepidation. Under the new moniker, Dead & Company, John learnt to play slower and oftentimes on one string rather than chords—in sync with the rest of the massive group. Having not grown up as a “Deadhead”, the eureka moment came when ‘Althea’ came on, sending John into a spiral. Now accepted by the community, the band regularly tours the States (pandemic permitting).
Upcoming works: Sob Rock
With the infectious single ‘New Light’ being unleashed into the world in 2018, untethered to any full-length album (along two subsequent releases in 2019), there are signs of even more new music on the horizon. Mysterious posters are appearing on all corners of the globe —whilst undoubtedly a marketing push by his label, this also signals the imminent release of the full-length EP entitled Sob Rock on 16 July. Snippets of new songs teased via social media suggest that John may have been exploring synth sounds of Dire Straights and Toto - but only time will tell. Listen to his latest single, ‘Last Train Home’, now.
Connect to your favourite speaker and enjoy this playlist featuring some of the finest singer-songwriter gentlemen.
John Mayor’s Collaborations
John Mayer has entertained his fans with a wide array of collaborations outside his usual singer-songwriter genres, including projects with Fall Out Boy, blues and jazz musicians, as well as other unexpected partnerships.
Take a listen to some of John Mayer's best collaborations.
Fall Out Boy
Fall Out Boy and John Mayer collaborated on and performed “Beat It”, live on stage in 2008. Featuring Mayer rocking the guitar solo originally performed by Eddie Van Halen, this upbeat genre-crossing collaboration showed both John Mayer and Fall Out Boys’ versatility.
John Mayer and Eric Clapton have collaborated on a number of songs including “Magnolia”, “Don’t Wait”, and “Lies”. Mayer’s career could only be uplifted by Clapton’s praise of his work – the latter calling Mayer “extremely gifted.” Clapton has also praised Mayer’s humility, stating: “he is a master. I don’t think he knows how good he is.”
"Hummingbird", originally written by Don Robertson and released in 1955, has been recorded by many artists, including BB-King who recorded the song both solo and in collaboration with John Mayer.
Cover Credit: Joseph Okpako/Getty Images
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Writer | Alexander Esmail
A lawyer by training who moonlights as a fashion enthusiast, Alexander is a huge proponent of relaxed tailoring, obscure sneakers and the meticulous tradition of Japanese workwear.
June 19 2021
Love the article and your great commentary! New Light was 2018 not 2008 ☺️
June 19 2021
Nice article, quick revision: spelling should be “Althea”
June 19 2021
How refreshing it is to finally read an article from someone who sounds like a true-blue Mayer fan. Exquisite writing. Thank you for giving John Mayer the appreciation and respect as a musician that he deserves.