music review: continuum

September 15, 2006

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How refreshing, I thought to myself as I reached the end of bluesy rocker John Mayer’s recent release Continuum, his first studio project since 2003’s Heavier Things. Mr. Mayer has aged since his 2001 debut, and with this album eases into a laid back, barebones style of musicianship that befits his increased maturity. It’s grown-up music, crafted with care for an audience that has grown up with him. How refreshing.

The first track, the popular, catchy single “Waiting On the World To Change,” starts things off with a lively beat very reminiscent of his earlier work, reminding us once again (for those who had forgotten) of Mayer’s outstanding prowess with the guitar and introducing us to his talented bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. It is also an overtly political, depressingly pessimistic bit of music with a message designed to appeal to the young and “disenfranchised,” though to rouse the slumbering from their complacency would be a most formidable feat, as “Waiting” is but the latest in a long line of high-minded music that has, thus far, failed to generate much more than airplay and a spot on the iTunes top 10 list. Still, the consummate musicianship and impeccable engineering make it well worth a listen or twenty.

Blowing past the next cut, the distastefully repetitive “I Don’t Trust Myself,” we arrive at two standouts: “Belief,” an inventive, questioning tune also aiming to politicize; and “Gravity,” a mellow, sentimental version of the ballad first heard on the 2005’s John Mayer Trio album Try!. The latter especially is hauntingly beautiful, its spare melodies perfectly complementing Mayer’s angsty, impassioned vocals. “The Heart of Life” is next, and while some may find it sickeningly sentimental, it works well as a throwback to earlier days of musicianship, aided by the fact that the track sounds as if it had been recorded inside some sort of hollow chamber (rather like many old LPs).

The funky “Vultures,” also of Mayer’s trio work, has a vaguely seventies vibe reminiscent (to me) and honoring of early Steely Dan material, but the soporific “Stop This Train” is so generic as to be almost entirely forgettable. Not so with “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room,” a ballad of love, loss, and all that good stuff. But seriously, its sincerity and earnestness, combined with Mayer’s divine musical sensibilities, make it one of the best on the album. Next is a personal favorite, a cover of the great Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love,” which provides Mayer with the chance to show us how close he may be to his idol’s legendary skills; his enthusiasm is infectious.

A piano introduction to “Dreaming With A Broken Heart” at first brings to mind a less classy version of Norah Jones, and when Mayer chimes in sans guitar I started to wonder what, exactly, he was up to. I need not have worried, as it turned out, as his skills as a vocalist rescue what might have been a mushy oddity of a song; it’s an intriguing departure from much of the rest of the album. While the Coldplay-ish “In Repair” is blandly pleasing, the final track, “I’m Gonna Find Another You,” ends the disc well with another vintage-sounding, carefully-crafted performance featuring Mayer and a delightfully jazzy brass section; the ending is classic, with his last words dying out over a few simple guitar chords: there’s magic to be found in that.

What is notable about Continuum is not that every song impresses; quite a few do not, as should be evident from the above, though this fact is hardly extraordinary among albums in general. Rather, the thrill of hearing–and, in concert, watching–Mr. Mayer do what he so obviously loves, and do it so well, blots out the rough spots with the glint of the studio lights reflecting off his guitar as he strums it feverishly. When Continuum succeeds, it does so spectacularly. That is enough to make it a worthy continuation of Mr. Mayer’s musical career and, more significantly, among the best albums released this year.

–D. S. W.

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