Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Room for Squares

John Mayer is a musician loaded with talent.

One must look only as far as his appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads guitar festival to see how monstrous his guitar technique really is.

So why does he choose to continue releasing albums of panderous crooning and safe, mellow grooves?

A guy who could have been the guitar hero of our time, the Eddie Van Halen of the Aughts, has chosen instead to condemn himself to the world’s soft rock radio stations for all of eternity.

There’s no doubt he’s a solid songwriter. I can call the melodies of “No Such Thing” and “Gravity” and “Daughters” and “Waiting on the World to Change” to mind instantly. But when I want to rock out, Mayer’s got nothin’. He goes with the Jack Johnson brand of hazy brain-fuzz strumming instead. There’s a time and place for that, of course, but Mayer’s capable of so much more.

Those music fans who have been waiting for Mayer to come out of his shell probably got excited when word got out that 2006’s Continuum contained a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love.” Finally, Mayer takes a shot at the role he should be playing, right? But they were likely disappointed when the album actually dropped.

Mayer’s covers of “Bold As Love” and Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” (on the recently released Battle Studies) pay homage to his influences, two gods of rock who he has the talent to copy. Unfortunately, neither song rises above that “copy” status. His Stratocaster cuts like a knife on “Bold As Love” but the song still manages to sound sanitized. The beaten-down-but-still-tryin’ vibe of “I’m On Fire” is replaced by a pale imitation.

John Mayer Trio’s live album Try! is the closest Mayer has ever come to baring his soul on a recording. “Who Did You Think I Was,” the disc’s opening track, is a rock song. Unfortunately, he settles back into his familiar groove later in the set.

Taking Mayer’s entire recorded body of work into account, maybe it’s time to admit it: Mayer is overrated as an underrated guitarist. He can replicate the burning blues licks of his heroes, but he can’t make them his own.

He won’t be recording Springsteen’s “I’m A Rocker” next because he’s not. He’s a singer-songwriter who crafts pleasing mid-tempo melodies. His influences may be some of the blues-rock greats, but he’s content to imitate them in his spare time and then go back to recording low-voiced snoozefests.

He’s probably happy with his legacy. How many children have been conceived to Mayer records? It has to be at least a few. But the chances of Mayer throwing us a bone and making a rock album are looking mighty bleak.

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