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Review: The Next Wave of John Mayer

John Mayer/Search For Everything: Wave One/Columbia

In 2012 and 2013—as has happened several times before—we found John Mayer reinvented, putting his spin on a Lauren Canyon, country rock sound with Born and Raised and Paradise Valley, two albums that seem extensions of one another.

As a writer, they were some of Mayer’s finest work to date, and another layer in his ever-shifting, hand-in-everything musical style that has moved the 39-year-old from Room for Squares’ breathy-voiced pup, to Try!’s neck-cutting bluesman, to Battle Studies’ 80’s L.A. popstar, to Dead & Company jam band guitarist.

As a musician, John Mayer does not stagnate, remains unbound by genre.

Regardless of tastes, that trait is worthy of admiration.

Now, with his first release in four years—The Search of Everything—Mayer is not only pushing the outer regions of his sound, but also the nature of the traditional album, as it exists in 2017.
The Search for Everything is being released in parts, with his Wave One EP arriving yesterday, a four-song installment of marinated, jazzy pop that Mayer began working on in 2014. A rolling release release, Mayer called these first four songs “the price of admission” into the rest of the album.

“If you don’t like these, don’t get the next four,” he told Rolling Stone. “But if I’ve engendered some kind of trust that you think I’m onto something, get the next four, and come along with me on every single wave.”

Mayer’s ambition on The Search for Everything is clear, as its first chapter mines jazz, R&B, Top 40, and soul, setting its early ebbs and flows against the sweeping production of a 70’s pop-rock classic, citing Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors as an in-studio inspiration. While Mayer says he “wasn’t interested in doing anything [he’s] done before,” the fraction put forth on Wave One seems a sunnier, more fully-realized Battle Studies, making good on the potential of his 2009 album, and crystallizing Mayer’s understanding and mastery of timeless pop.

While he’s searching for everything, Mayer writes within the confines the confines of classic pop—hooks featuring girls, cars, growing up—and shows that there is very little he can’t do.

Wave One opens with the effortlessly R&B “Moving On and Getting Over,” which is built on an Al Green groove and smooth guitar subtlety. Mayer sets a course for not overwriting here, letting the vibe rule the track, its lyrics operating with tact, rhythmic repetition, and sparse staples of the genre. “It’s taken me so long just to say “So long.”/Baby it’s so long, but I’m moving on,” Mayer sings, before setting a modern context—“I’m one text away from being back again, but I’m moving on, and I’m getting over”—and innovating with off-balanced production that punctuates his early hook, “I still can’t get you off my mind.”

“I had this idea to get your attention through repetition that almost sounds like a CD skip,” he told Rolling Stone. “It was a really novel sort of hook.”

With its orchestral mix of piano, acoustic guitar, and eventual build to a heavy-bodied blues solo, “Changing” is perhaps the track most-suited for one of Mayer’s previous records, even beyond the fact that, lyrically, it hints at some of its writer’s personal and PR failings in the early 2010’s. The song is, again, minimalist, a sort of circular prose poem that boasts beautifully simple lines: “Wish I could tie me a rope around the sun, ‘cause I am not done changing”; “Time’s been talking to me, whispering in my ear, saying ‘Follow your heart ‘til it tears you apart””; “I may be old, and I may be young, but I am not done changing.” Against a musical backdrop that sweeps and roams and grows into a warm wind blowing across endless, rolling fields, “Changing” becomes vaguely folksome, a natural balancing act to the album’s purely Californian, open road lead single, “Love on the Weekend.”

Thematically, “Love on the Weekend” makes sense in this new work, boasting all the trappings of a pop-crossover from a bygone era, something akin to Springsteen on “Hungry Heart,” the Eagles set in the modern day, or the Police—a comparison that applies beyond Mayer singing, “We found a message in the bottle we were sipping on.” “Love on the Weekend,” is Mayer is at his smoothest, mixing synth guitars with tender keys and a thin, electric beat, weaving a blend of sonic unity that runs an 80’s pop parallel to the harmony of “Daughters.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t understand “Love on the Weekend” as a release, following Mayer’s folk-reinvention and summer with the Dead. It seemed, to me, a grab at mainstream appeal, following two albums that have sold significantly less than their predecessors. However, in the context of Wave One, there’s an obvious logic to “Love on the Weekend,” a true standout track that builds a landscape in this new collection, and hints at the possibility of what’s to come.

On Wave One’s finale, “You’re Gonna Live in Me Forever,” Mayer takes a stylistic risk not just for him, but for anyone, playing the role of a sweetly heartbroken Randy Newman, using a spare piano to distant whistles to create a tale of unrequited love, immense in scale: Mayer begins in the Cretaceous Period, opening with “Great big bang and dinosaurs, fiery rain and meteors/It all ends unfortunately, but you’re gonna live forever in me.” With its steady piano, Mayer tracks the cosmos, saying the “Planets keep their distance too/the moon has a grip on the sea,” but brings the song to its climax with its narrator at his lost love’s wedding, saying “When the pastors asks the pews, for reasons he can’t marry you/I’ll keep my word in my seat, but you’re gonna live forever in me.”  album’s quietest track “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me,” is it’s most ambitious—both lyrically, but also in its restraint, as Mayer never overplays on Wave One, an oddly poignant strength of the work.

“You’re Gonna Live Forever” is simply heartbreaking, painfully kind—and oddly enough, a cliffhanger.

Four songs, sonically unified, the last hanging in the air, leaving us to wonder when The Search for Everything will begin again, and what we will find when we get there.

Stream: John Mayer Search For Everything: Wave One On Spotify

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