In a conscious effort to shake off the unfavorable Dave Matthews comparisons that plagued his first two albums, and to build upon his militant fanbase’s deafening, constant insistence that he’s, like, a really good blues guitarist, John Mayer released Try! John Mayer Trio Live in Concert in late 2005, a live record on which he laid bare his primary influences (not that Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, and B.B. King are difficult or obscure influences for a would-be bluesman to acquire) and which served as a signpost to indicate a new direction in his music. Along the way, Mayer has impressed plenty of noteworthy people—Buddy Guy doesn’t invite just anyone to play with him—but, following-up Try! means that it’s put-up-or-shut-up time as far as his actual studio output is concerned. Drippy adult contemporary ballads like “Your Body Is A Wonderland” and “Daughters” might impress Jennifer Love Hewitt and the doddering, senile people who hold membership cards for both NARAS and AARP, but they also represent an obvious disconnect between his work and the artist that he both wants and claims to be.
Mayer’s latest studio album, Continuum, then, should represent a significant, perhaps career-redefining artistic development. Instead, it’s an album that’s every bit as dull as Room For Squares and Heavier Things, but, instead of recalling Matthews’s bland frat-boy rock, recalls Ben Harper’s bland funksoulbrother conceit. In fact, Continuum often plays like a single-disc version of Harper’s bloated Both Sides of the Gun with only occasional flourishes of Mayer’s guitar work to distinguish his brand of too-mellow R&B-infused rock.
While it’s encouraging that his much ballyhooed guitar prowess has finally been documented on one of his proper records, the fact remains that Continuum still leaves lingering questions of whether Wonderbread has the chops to carry off this style in the long term. His attempts at playing the lothario, as on “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You),” and the lovelorn, sensitive crooner (“Dreaming With A Broken Heart”) come off as alternately lecherous, thanks to his constant wheeze, or insincere, given the smug posturing of nearly every interview he does. His falsetto is even reedier than Justin Timberlake’s, and the more fired-up he tries to sound—as on lead single “Waiting On The World To Change” or his cover of Hendrix’s “Bold As Love,” which is plenty of things besides bold—the more he sounds in need of a hit of Albuterol.
As limited as his voice might be, it’s ultimately the slightness of Mayer’s songwriting that is his greatest liability; he simply lacks the substance of his idols. “Waiting On The World To Change” may lift its melody from Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” but its ham-fisted images (what with decrying easy targets like the corporate-owned media and, even better, “the system”) amount to a rallying cry of passive-aggression. Needless to say, it’s the obvious frontrunner to win the Song of the Year Grammy next spring. Elsewhere, a casual misogyny sneaks into songs like “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You),” “I’m Gonna Find Another You,” and “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” (where the song’s slow-burn groove is at odds with the nastiness of the lines “You’ll be a bitch because you can/You’ll try to hit me just to hurt me/So you leave me feeling dirty/Cause you can’t understand”), while “The Heart Of Life” and “Dreaming With A Broken Heart” aim for insight but end up sounding insipid.
With no edge to the songwriting and with such spit-polished, tasteful production, Continuum just doesn’t convince as a heady, soulful rock album or as Mayer’s creative quantum leap forward. Sure, he can choke the hell out of a guitar and pay respectful homage to true genre masters like Guy, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton. If nothing else, what Continuum confirms is that Mayer, as an awfully good guitarist and a considerably less-good singer-songwriter, hasn’t yet figured out how he can build upon the legacies of the men he cites as influences, but that he has the ambition and the desire to keep trying until he gets it right.