Sound — 6
John Mayer's credentials as a guitar player are pretty much unnecessary to mention here. Whether it be electric blues in his John Mayer Trio, jamming hard with Dead & Company (a band consisting of former Grateful Dead members), or simply as a solo artist, Mayer has really carved out his own little niche in the guitar world, combining the bluesy Strat-weilding sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan with the modern pop sensibility of so many current music stars.
In researching for this review, I found very little mention of the sound of the album in many other reviews and news articles, choosing instead to focus on the album's lyrical content and vocals, and that probably tells you all you need to know about the typical audience this album is meant for: people who generally can't tell one end of a guitar from the other. And yet, on this collection of songs, John manages to inject a significant amount of excellent guitar playing throughout. There's a fair amount of sonic variety on the album, with songs each being in their own particular style, though a common stylistic theme on this album is something far more country-rock oriented, particularly later on in the album.
Opening the album is "Still Feel Like Your Man", which is a typically Mayer-esque jazzy, funky pop/rock tune, and its pulsing muted guitar riff is actually a great delight to listen. This sort of guitar-oriented pop sound is definitely refreshing, and yet this is still a tune I can easily see being a radio hit. "Emoji of a Wave", rather silly title aside, is also a pretty good acoustic pop song with a great sense of dynamics and swelling harmony vocals (courtesy of Al Jardine of The Beach Boys and his son Matt) and an absolutely lovely melody. "Helpless" opens with the "hardest" guitar riff on the album, John wrangling a decent rock tone out of his Strat. The song also features probably one of the catchiest hooks on the album. First single "Love on the Weekend" is a much more laid-back ordeal, reminiscent of later era Eagles tracks (circa "The Long Run" and "Hell Freezes Over") with a more modern pop melodic sensibility.
"In The Blood" features more acoustic guitars and a country-esque atmosphere, as well as a guest appearance on vocals from Sheryl Crow. Despite the guest appearance, I don't feel this song is as strong as the four that opened the record, though the chorus hook is not bad at all. "Changing" is a waltzy, mellow ballad largely featuring piano and slide guitar accompanying Mayer's vocal. Further cementing the idea that it's not necessarily the musician crowd that other reviews are geared toward, the largely instrumental "Theme from 'The Search For Everything'" doesn't even warrant a mention in other reviews, but this brief acoustic-led interlude is one of my favourite moments on the record, with a really neat chord progression and an equally impressive wordless vocal melody that actually reminds me of the kind of work Devin Townsend was doing on some of his much softer solo work.
Comparing Mayer to Townsend is quite a stretch, and it's admittedly a very brief moment, because right away, we're back to the "guitar+R&B formula" of "Moving On and Getting Over", a decent tune, but not anything particularly groundbreaking. "Never on the Day You Leave" is a country-esque piano ballad, and a nice track, but by this point on the album, you start kind of hoping to hear John get into a more rockin' headspace. "Rosie" almost satisfies this, with a more prominent focus on the electric guitar, and a very well-produced and well played drum part. The almost reggae-ish flavour of the song lends it a bit of a '70s flair that makes it one of my favourite tunes on the album, particularly with the harmonies in the chorus. "Roll It On Home" is a full-on country song, complete with pedal steel licks. "You're Gonna Live Forever in Me" closes out the album on a somber note, with most of the song featuring only Mayer's voice, piano, and a string arrangement. The songwriting on the album is decent, but nothing exemplary. It's all very much steeped in the concept of writing effective pop songs, so there aren't really any big surprises in terms of song structure or dynamics, but if you're looking for pop music with a more guitar-oriented flair, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
There's also quite a bit of stylistic variety from R&B-influenced pop to full-on country and '70s soft rock and folk. And yet, despite this variety, the album seems to retain a bit of a sense of the album featuring too many of the same kind of mellow sounds. There aren't really that many big stand-out moments where the pace or tone of the music picks up, and we get most of the album's energy in the first four songs. The instrumental performances are nothing to particularly write home about, but John makes the best of the mellower songwriting with a fairly adept guitar performance. It's a shame that the typical pop reviewers tend to overlook Mayer's guitar playing, as it's rather decent, though on this album, not entirely groundbreaking. Production-wise, Steve Jordan, Chad Franscoviak and John Mayer himself have crafted a very slick, modern production, but still managed to keep things very dynamic, with a lot of headroom, which is perhaps one of the benefits of such a mellow musical style.
Lyrics — 6
The going theme with the lyrics on this album is that of "lost love", essentially making this a concept album about breakups. Particularly, as mentioned in many other sources, his breakup with pop star Katy Perry. It's rather typical pop song banter, nothing we haven't heard before from many lyricists, but the lyrics are not expressly awful or anything. Lines like "I still keep your shampoo in my shower/In case you wanna wash your hair/And I know that you probably found yourself some more somewhere/But I do not really care/'Cause as long as it is there/I still feel like your man" from the opening track are meant to be autobiographical and personal (as confirmed by Mayer on Twitter, probably the most impersonal place on the internet), but also intensely relatable at the same time, and he probably hits the mark quite well there.
But then you get the kind of modern pop lyrics that, while sure to make the track a pop hit, are just kind of cringe-worthy in "Love on the Weekend": "You be the DJ, I'll be the driver/You put your feet up in the getaway car/I'm flying fast like a, a wanted man/I want you, baby, like you can't understand". Honestly, this being relationship-oriented pop music, I find it a lot easier to simply tune out the lyrics, as they're mostly just generic diatribes on being in love, losing love, and it's a theme that, while certainly universal and easy to comprehend, is kind of done to death. Vocally, Mayer's smooth vocals do deliver these lyrics with a touch more poignancy than if they had been delivered by any one of today's other modern male pop sensations. As a vocalist, I've never found him any more impressive than most soft-rock male vocalists, but he does get the job done, and even manages to pull off a pretty good country drawl on some of the album's more southern-fried tracks.
Overall Impression — 6
With its mellow atmosphere and lyrics dealing with relationships at, near, or after their end, this is an album that's sure to be the soundtrack to many fresh breakups for a long time to come, and perhaps that's why there's very little focus on the sound of the record as opposed to its content. The universal emotional content of the album is certainly something that's going to ensure that Mayer gets a big paycheck from this album.
But when you take the focus off of the lyrical content, the instrumental performances on this album are strong enough to carry this record for fans of mellower pop-rock and country music. John Mayer has always made it clear that the guitar is his one true love, and this album is no exception to the rule, despite its lessened reliance on blues licks and electric guitars than some of his recent output. Those hoping for a John Mayer Trio-style album will no doubt be disappointed, though Steve Jordan (drums) and Pino Palladino (bass) do appear throughout the album. But as far as acoustic pop-rock goes, this is actually a fairly good quality record, even if it's a little unremarkable.
There are a handful of songs I do enjoy on the record, including "Still Feel Like Your Man", "Helpless", "Theme from 'The Search for Everything'", and "Rosie", which are definitely the most high-energy tracks on the album, and there are still good performances peppered through the album, but for the most part, it's just a bit too mellow for my tastes.