Speaking to His Generation: John Mayer’s Continuum

By Daniel Garrett

John Mayer
Produced by John Mayer and Steve Jordan
Aware/Columbia (Sony), 2006

Me and all my friends
We’re all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing
And there’s no way we ever could
Now we see everything that’s going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don’t have the means
To rise above and beat it

In the softly bluesy rock of “Waiting on the World to Change,” on which jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove plays horns, John Mayer sings with a mellow melancholy about vision and good intentions limited by practical power; and these are words for our times. We just feel like we don’t have the means to rise above and beat it. They may be words for all times. The song’s refrain, “We keep waiting on the world to change,” is one that indicates both hope as well as passivity. Mayer admits, “It’s hard to beat the system/when we’re standing at a distance.” That could be self-criticism. He acknowledges how things would be different if he and his friends had power, and notes how power—regarding information and military might—is used and abused by others. John Mayer is also aware of a force beyond institutions—that of biology: “One day our generation is gonna rule the population,” and in that statement is both possibility and threat, for how does one handle power without practice, without training? We keep on waiting on the world to change.

I will not argue that in “Waiting on the World to Change” and the other songs on John Mayer’s album Continuum we have a profound recording or new leadership, but I do know that I found in the album assurance and relief in shared recognition. It is the humanity I see in Mayer’s work that is the most hopeful and most respectable quality (and it is a humanity that cannot be taken for granted as it is not to be found in the work of all contemporary artists). In “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” the narrator acknowledges that he does not always understand his own need for love and the fluctuation of his own desires—he sees the patterns, and can acknowledge them, but does not understand them—and he warns his new lover of this. It is an honest admission, supported by a seductively soulful chorus; and a blues guitar twang adds something sensual and somber. Mayer goes further and asks, “Who do you love? Me or the thought of me?” The song has elements of rock, blues, and soul, and ends with orchestral flourishes. Mayer sings, “Belief is a beautiful armor, but makes for the heaviest sword” in the song “Belief,” about individuality and conformity, about pride and publicity, suggesting how necessary and also dangerous faith is: “What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand? Belief can. Belief can. What puts the folded flag inside [the] mother’s hand? Belief can. Belief can.” John Mayer, in this song with an uptempo rhythm that balances the song’s skeptical words, and aided by Ben Harper on guitar, is exploring private and public matters in a way I find heroic.

“Gravity is working against me” and “Gravity has taken better men than me, now how can that be?” and “Just keep me where the light is” are lines that John Mayer sings in “Gravity,” words that some might consider pretentious, a too obvious lunge for meaning, but the song is sung as plain declaration, and it seems to me that identifying one’s limitations is as important as identifying one’s ambitions and good intentions: one’s ability to maneuver reality is likely to be increased, and one is less likely to waste time and effort.

“The Heart of Life” sounds nearly like a lullaby. Mayer’s voice is comforting and the percussion of Steve Jordan and the bass of Pino Palladino create an almost whimsical mood. However, the words could keep someone awake and thinking. Mayer’s lyric “There’s things you need to hear, so turn off your tears, and listen” is blunt and not eloquent or elegant, but it is honest, as Mayer goes on to sing of how pain recurs and friends help and life continues.

There is also a lack of elegance—of fineness of lyric, of best articulation: language is not burnished so that it becomes an art—in the song “Vultures” when Mayer sings “I wanted water but I’ll walk through the fire,/ if this is what it takes to take me even higher./ Then I’ll come through like I do,/ when the world keeps testing me.” Having seen how good intentions, intelligence, and hard work do not lead to power as hoped, who can argue with what Mayer says in the same song: “Power is made by power being taken”? The song’s music reminds me somewhat of the Rolling Stones and also of Prince, not bad reminders. The song suggests grace under pressure; and it had me patting my feet and nodding my head in rhythm. Mayer removes the awkwardness from sharp assertions, and fills what might seem blather with conviction: something that is more necessary in certain songs than others. In “Stop This Train,” Mayer begins “No I’m not colorblind, I know the world is black and white” and “Stop this train, I want to get off, and go home again” and “I’m only good at being young.” These seem evidence of a young man’s confusion. I may have a soft place in my sensibility for a man exploring his sensitivity. It is hard for me to be critical of lapses of logic or judgement when I think the effort is genuine: and I do think, here, it is genuine. The train in the song seems a metaphor for the onward rush of life, which carries us forward and takes us past people and things we might want to linger with. In the song, the father advises, “Don’t for a minute change the place you’re in, and don’t think I couldn’t ever understand.” Mayer’s music seems a conversation he is having with himself and his family and friends and also with his own time. It is a marvelous sense—experience and tradition are made perceptible, radiant.

“Nobody’s gonna come and save you. We pulled too many false alarms,” sings John Mayer in “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” (great image and title: cinematic). Some of his lyrics in the song are bruising in their candor, and he captures the tender and querulous qualities in an intimate relationship. Mayer then sings Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love,” a song of imaginative (if hard to explicate) poetry and love. Mayer does not exude the fervent sexuality of Hendrix, or the originality, but he makes the song his own by investing it with masculine sensitivity, much more sensitivity than Hendrix ever made vivid. In “Dreaming with a Broken Heart,” yearning is captured. Mayer’s vocal performance and Ricky Peterson’s piano and the song’s lyrics turn the song into something like Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Mayer asks, “Do I have to fall asleep with roses in my hand?” and that is an image of both romance and loneliness. “In Repair” continues the meditative mood: “I’m in repair. I’m not together but I’m getting there.” The album ends with love’s demise and the will to go on: “I’m Gonna Find Another You.”

I like John Mayer’s Continuum very much!

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Luther Vandross, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, TV on the Radio, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ricky Martin, the Rolling Stones, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages ofThe Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” appeared on Offscreen.com, and featured Kathleen Battle, David Bowie, Common, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma, and Caetano Veloso. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com