Artist: John Mayer
Album: The Search for Everything
In Brief: This album seems like an amalgamation of all of Mayer’s previous sounds and styles. It’s a smidge more interesting to listen to than the pair of folk albums he released during his “rural isolation” period, and far less infuriating than Battle Studies, but I gotta be honest, I still prefer his first three albums, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
Isn’t it kind of messed up that I consider a thoroughly average, middle-of-the-road John Mayer album to be an improvement over his last several records? I suppose that just goes to show how far my expectations of the man had fallen after the abysmal trilogy comprised of 2009’s Battle Studies, 2012’s Born and Raised, and 2013’s Paradise Valley. I’ll admit that I first got into Mayer’s music when he was right on the cusp of fame, and still wrote about life, love and the occasional quarter-life crisis from a reasonably modest perspective on his mainstream debut, Room for Squares. That made it a bit harder to digest the change in sound when John went for more electric, blues-influenced pop on Heavier Things and Continuum, but I still found a lot to enjoy about those records. Then his ego and a handful of scandals started to get the best of him, and by the time Battle Studies rolled around, I simply couldn’t relate to Mayer any more. I commented at the time that I was trying my best to separate the man’s personal life and public image from his songwriting, but even taking what he was writing about in a vacuum, the guy just seemed exceedingly full of himself. I suppose the retreat from public life and the time he took to heal from damaged vocal chords after he moved to rural Montana may have done him some good, and I was excited at the idea of him returning to a more acoustic, folksy sound. But the two albums resulting from that phase of his life were largely so dull that I didn’t even bother to review them. I figured my days as a John Mayer fan were most definitely in the past.
My impression up until now has been that I’m the party pooper, the dreaded fan of a musician who’s been around for a long time who just wants him to sound like “the old days” and who can’t accept change. I figure the general public more or less ate up whatever singles he released and still bought his records to the point where those old albums had become obscured by the exposure his newer ones have gotten. I didn’t know until looking at the sales figures recently that he’d been on a steady decline ever since Room for Squares. Now you can blame some of that on the changing climate of the music industry and the often cited fact that “nobody” buys music any more. But wow, the drop-off over the years has been staggering. Maybe the man still has legions of fans who go to his live shows? I don’t know. He must have figured something was off and he needed to recalibrate things a bit in order to reconnect with fans he’d lost over the years, because here and now in 2017, he’s released an album called The Search for Everything that seems to be an attempt to recapture pretty much every sound he’s attempted over the course of his career.
To say that I first listened to this record with some trepidation would be an understatement. Three bad albums in a row is usually the point where I stop bothering to listen to new material at all from an artist, but it’s kind of like an abusive relationship with this guy; he keeps promising he’s a changed man and I keep buying it. And this time I around, I can actually believe to some degree that he’s worked through some of his issues and is coming at his songwriting from a wiser perspective. There are definitely a few songs on this record that torpedo my overall favorable impression from the get-go, but for the most part, I feel like I’m starting to relate to Mayer again on this record. The title certainly may be dubious – The Search for Everything sets the listener to expect some sort of grandiose rumination on the nature of existence itself and the spectrum of human experience, when in reality the lion’s share of the songs cover the usual subject matter of hookups and breakups and makeups. One or two might actually surprise me by showing a little more depth. But for the most part, the title is presumptuous – it’s probably the most misleading name he’s slapped on an album since Heavier Things.
Musically, while I’m excited to hear the acoustic and electric guitars sharing space a little bit more on this record, I still maintain that Mayer’s reputation far outstrips his actual performance, as most of these songs, even when they’re more poppy and/or riff-heavy, seem to be on the more simplistic side in terms of the instrumental prowess required to perform them. I could be completely wrong on that, since it’s not like I’ve ever spent time inside a recording studio. But the fact remains that I’m not hearing much that wows me here. I’ve heard the occasional standout guitar solo, or unexpected chord sequence on the acoustic that makes me drool, on past Mayer records, so I know what the man is capable of. He occasionally accomplishes something resembling that here. And it’s to this album’s credit that each song is distinct enough in its sound that, while I may get them confused with tracks from his previous albums, I don’t get any of them confused with each other. I’d imagine several of these songs will do a serviceable job at radio, while some of the more subdued but pretty ones will be remembered by fans as worthwhile deep cuts. I don’t see anything here becoming as iconic as any of Mayer’s early hits, but then my listening habits aren’t exactly on the cutting edge of the mainstream, so I’m probably not the best judge of such things anyway. For the most part, The Search for Everything is a pleasant listen that dials back the dullness and douchebaggery of his last few records enough for me to find it tolerable. I just can’t bring myself to say much of anything significantly more positive about it than that, but coming from me, even saying it’s average is kind of high praise at this point.
1. Still Feel Like Your Man
I’ll consider the first track on this record an accomplishment, if for no other reason than that it has a premise which makes me want to hate it right away, and yet it manages to make me kind of like it. The laid back R&B groove helps here – John’s playing it cool on the guitar, but it actually sort of makes sense to do so, and the brisk pace of the song makes it feel like more of a lighthearted confession than an unhealthy obsession. See, John’s having a hard time getting over an ex-lover. That in and of itself is nothing new for him, but since he tends to date high profile starlets, we all know this is about Katy Perry, and he’s said so on the record. His description of how he keeps her stuff around his apartment, just in case she ever decides to drop by and relive old times, is almost pathetic, but then I think back to “City Love” on Room for Squares and I realize that a girl keeping her stuff at his place has always been a very symbolic thing for John. I can’t say I understand his taste in women, but I guess I’ll give him that one. Some listeners have taken issue with the first verse of the song, where “the prettiest girl in the room” seems to be making a move on him, and it kind of sounds like a brag. But it’s interesting to me that he doesn’t go for the easy rebound with her. He seems almost bewildered that someone he considers that attractive is even interested when he’s in such a wrecked emotional state. Maybe it’s still a bit arrogant to hint that he could have slept with the woman who is way out of everyone else’s league, but he didn’t, but I take the fact that he passed on the opportunity as a sign that he recognizes he needs time for the healing process to complete. Still a bit of an awkward song, but I didn’t end up hating it, which means this album’s off to a comparatively amazing start.
2. Emoji of a Wave
This song has a title that makes me want to hate it right away. I mean, on the scale of Gimmicky Song Titles, that’s just a notch below your average Fall Out Boy song. Thankfully, there’s nothing in the lyrics that will make this song seem terribly dated in just a decade or two, when we’ve stumbled across some other fad to communicate in as few taps as possible how we’re feeling, since emojis are never mentioned here… just actual emotions. You could listen to this one and easily assume it’s called “Just a Wave”. Which would have been a more authentic, albeit less attention-grabbing title. Enough about the damn song title. I actually really like this song. I don’t quite love it, because while the rich, finger-picked acoustic melody gets me going like nothing on his past two records did, nothing about it seems quite as climactic as the overwhelming waves of emotion described in John’s lyrics. It’s a reasonably good portrait of how the process of getting over someone can sometimes cripple you with a sudden onslaught of fear and sadness and self-doubt. I’m not going to say it’s super insightful – about the only advice he has to give himself here is “Just hold on”. But it communicates the feeling reasonably well. I enjoy it more than I’ve enjoyed any John Mayer song in the last ten years. That’s really saying something.
This holdover from the Born and Raised sessions definitely doesn’t sound like it would have fit on that album at all. It’s a more bouncy, electric guitar-driven, anthem about being too brazenly stupid to even realize when you need help. Presumably as the result of a lot of drinking, as mentioned in the first verse, but the lyrics don’t give a lot of specifics beyond that. The lyrics are maddeningly repetitive, actually, which quite nearly squanders an otherwise catchy chorus by repeating the line “If I’m helpless, tell me now, tell me now” three times in succession. He could have filled that in with some more details that just happened to rhyme, and the song would have been no worse for the wear. But what do I know? Listeners care more about songs they can easily remember and sing along to than songs that actually make some sort of a point, I guess. As much as I rag on John for not doing enough interesting things with his guitar on his studio albums to warrant his reputation as a killer axe-man, I have to admit that I’m really satisfied with his soloing here. It’s pretty much what saves the song, once the stabby riff and bouncy backbeat that initially get my attention have demonstrated that they’re not really headed anywhere more interesting than where they started off.
4. Love on the Weekend
So far on this record, I’ve been far more interested in the music than the lyrics. This song flips that equation on its head, because musically, it’s about as middle-of-the-road adult contemporary as it can be – predictably safe for whatever kinds of radio stations aren’t playing the hotter side of modern pop music, I guess. People have compared it to a Room for Squares ballad, and… no. I’m not buying it. Sure, the lyrics are as wide-eyed and innocent as anything on that record, which is the only real draw here, but musically, it’s based around keyboards and electric guitar doing nothing all that special to a laid-back beat. Blah. I actually wanted to hate this one, too, from what I initially thought it was about – some sort of a short-term fling that only lasted for a weekend. Turns out I was wrong about that, and a few more listens made it clear that I hadn’t been paying attention. He’s in love with someone he can only see on the weekends, presumably due to either long distance or a punishing work schedule that makes weeknight get-togethers impractical. So they jet off somewhere on a Friday, cram in as many activities and love-making sessions as they presumably can, and then go through the inevitable emotional crash-and-burn every Sunday when they have to say goodbye. The thing is, John does a legitimately good job at capturing that feeling of simultaneously being on top of the world and dreading the separation. “I hate your guts, but I’m lovin’ every minute of it” is the kind of line that would make me see John as a total jerkass if he’d written it in the Battle Studies era, but here it just makes perfect sense. He doesn’t actually hate her; he’s just playfully describing the heartache they make each other feel every time they have to go their separate ways. I figure this will probably be relatable to folks who have attempted long-distance relationships. Seeing each other every weekend would have been a luxury back when my now-wife and I were doing that… but that’s another story. The point is – good storytelling here, so-so music.
5. In the Blood
Wow, John. Just, WOW. I really didn’t see this one coming, and I mean that in the best way possible. Remember “Stop This Train”? That’s the last time up until now that a John Mayer song has packed such an emotional gut-punch for me. Here he finally zooms out from his usual relationship fare and comes up with something that might better fit the purported theme of “everything”, due to the big questions it asks about whether who we are is foretold in our DNA, or whether we have the power to choose. He begins the song by asking himself how much of his mother (and then later his father) is left in him, noting examples of emotional or mental struggles they apparently never quite got over and wondering if he’s headed down that same road simply by virtue of being their son. “Will it wash out in the water, or is it always in the blood?” he asks, which puts a clever spin on the old adage that blood (meaning family) is thicker than water (meaning everyone and everything else, I guess). He does tie this back into relationships when he hints at being just like his father, giving up way too much of himself to a woman too soon, and getting jealous when she doesn’t go all in as quickly, might be what’s running his various romances straight into the ditch. What’s interesting here is how my parents might have behaved completely different from John’s parents, yet his specificity about their failings doesn’t ruin the universality of the song. I’ve asked myself very similar questions about how much I’m going to turn out like my mother (which in my case would be a positive outcome) or like my father (definitely a negative one) and what I have to do to fight the negative patterns I’ve observed within my own family tree. So John scores high marks for writing about this eloquently and yet succinctly. Where he doesn’t score such his marks is for the music. I mean, the slow groove and acoustic strum accompanied by handclaps here is OK, I guess… it has a slight folk/country feel to it, but it’s very workmanlike. Nobody in this ensemble seems particularly passionate about the part they’ve been given to play. So if for some reason you managed to tune the lyrics out, this song would probably turn out to be one of the album’s least impressive. “Stop This Train” was similarly mellow, but it had a strong acoustic melody leading the way and the instrumentation had a bit more complexity to it. So that one’s still the gold standard for emotional John Mayer songs about his family, but this certainly one gets some solid points for trying.
By John Mayer’s own admission, the chorus of this song felt like a 30-second jingle when he first came up with it, and he had to figure out how to build a song around it. Given that, it’s probably not much of a surprise that I easily get tired of how the melody circles back on itself here; combined with the all-too-obvious observation that John, like any other human being, is always changing, it feels like this track winds up at the old Department of Redundancy Department in record time. He has to keep going back to that word “changing” as he makes his inane observations, and when you contrast this with “In the Blood”, I think it illustrates the difference between the good and bad kinds of “universal” songwriting – there’s the kind that says stuff we can all relate to, but in a way that perhaps we hadn’t thought about it before, and then there’s the kind that says stuff we all knew about ourselves and that doesn’t add anything insightful to the conversation. So the lyrics and the melody are total wash here… what’s left? A pretty decent guitar solo in the middle eight. I wish it had been part of a completely different song, but at least it offers some respite from the monotony.
7. Theme From ‘The Search for Everything’
This instrumental interlude seems to wish that it had a movie during which it could play over the opening credits, given the title. I mean, was it not enough to just let this one be the title track? What exactly is it the theme from? I don’t hear musical references to it anywhere else on the album. Nomenclature-related nitpicks aside, I do enjoy the laid-back acoustic feel of this one. It’s as mild-mannered and modestly folksy as anything from Mayer’s “rural isolation” albums, and it’s got that whole “backing music that plays on the hotel TV guide channel while a slideshow of pretty local scenery plays in the top half of the screen” vibe to it. So, nothing terribly exciting. And at less than two minutes, it never becomes a fully realized composition. But I like the gentle fingerpicking on the acoustic and the way that John’s wordless vocals blend into the mix. It’s the most interesting track in the album’s back half… which means the rest of this disc is gonna SUUUUUUUUCK.
8. Moving On and Getting Over
I want to like the lightly funky vibe of this song. I realize that John’s borrowing liberally from pop and R&B acts who know how to do a lot with a little, by starting songs off with a lightly sexy groove and then building upon them in a way that sneaks up on the listener. John just doesn’t seem interested in doing the whole “building” part here. So the song never gets past the light thumping beat and vaguely playful guitar riffs to give us something we can really sink our teeth into. For song about getting over someone, he sure spends a lot of his time explaining why he’s been unable to do this, making what should be a turning point in the story of his quest to become a better man instead feel like a retread of the wishful thinking we heard on the album’s opening track. His idea of “moving on” seems to involve hoping she’ll respond to his texts and show up for one last booty call, and even when he resolves to actually move on, it seems like a rather passive-aggressive attempt to make her jealous: “I’m gonna get a new girl/It’s something I can do, girl/To try to get me through, girl.” I know rebound relationships are common, but usually people aren’t this transparent about falling into them out of sheer boredom.
9. Never on the Day You Leave
As much as it irks me when a musician famous for his skills on a specific instrument mostly coasts on simplistic grooves when using that instrument in his studio recordings, it irks me more when he decides to switch to a different instrument on which he has comparatively little proficiency. I don’t listen to John Mayer albums to hear him play the piano, is what I’m saying here. This is pretty much “Dreaming with a Broken Heart, Part 2”, and the song on Continuum I’m referencing at least had some sort of a climax to add weight to its otherwise basic construction. This one has comparatively less weight to it, and as much as it makes you want to feel sorry for the sad sack guy who can’t even process the pain of his girl leaving him until it’s been stinging for a few days, it takes a hard turn into his old douchebag habits when he bitterly comments, “She’ll fight for you like hell/Then force herself to like some other man.” Yeah, ’cause she’s too dumb to figure out for herself who she really likes. The only man she could ever really love is obviously you, so if she winds up with someone else, obviously she’s faking it. (Insert massive emoji of an eyeroll here.)
To quote John Mayer’s Twitter account writing this song, “I wanted to write a soulful song about a guy who’s a drunk selfish idiot. (Not me.) He’s a sweet lunkhead (Me.)” Alright, benefit of the doubt here despite some unsettling evidence to the contrary – this song may not actually be about John trying to win back an old girlfriend by groveling in the rain and begging for one last one night stand. It’s about some character he realizes is a loser. It’s a cautionary tale. It’s still a pathetic and embarrassing song to listen to – quite possibly one of Mayer’s all-time worst. I’ve heard some really good songs about conniving man-children pining for their exes to give them another chance while demonstrating exactly why they don’t deserve one – Nickel Creek‘s “Helena” comes to mind. Mayer’s take on this situation is… not clever. At one point, presumably due to the Latin background of the woman likely seconds away from taking out a restraining order on him, he decides to show off a little Spanish: “Rosie, don’t you know my love is true/’Perdon’ and ‘lo siento’, see, I learned those words for you.” Wow, you learned some grade school vocabulary for her! Typing those three words into Google Translate must have been such a sacrifice! Honestly though, it may be your poor English skills that are of more concern to her, considering you’re asking her to do stupid crap like “Take my heart by the hand.” There’s one word that you definitely should know because it means the same thing in both languages, and that word is “No.” Look, I realize Mayer may not be playing the part of himself in this tragic tale of lost love. It’s just one of those moments where it’s hard to separate the individual from the art based on past performance, I guess. It doesn’t help that he’s got a more anemic groove going that reminds me of his old song “New Deep”, which was not one of my favorites on Heavier Things, and when he lets the guitar sing a bit during the breaks, I can’t help but imagine him making that stupid sex face that he makes when he’s clearly way more into it than his instrument is. Even the guitar probably wishes it had a restraining order at this point.
11. Roll It On Home
John’s reverted to a full-on country vibe here, which he did a few times on his last few albums, and while it’s a sound I don’t mind hearing from him, he continues to strike me as more of an impressionist copying a genre’s broadest mannerisms, rather than one who has really gotten inside the heads of the musicians he’s borrowing from and who understands what made them tick. So once again we get a song that’s pleasant to listen to (and at least breezy enough to counteract the inert grooves of the last few stabs he took at R&B), but that doesn’t really have much substance. John seems to be playing the role of a bartender here, consoling a patron who has clearly struck out yet again, reminding his that it’s last call and he might as well finish his bottle and head home, and go back up to home plate to try again tomorrow. It’s not terribly helpful advice, but I guess the sympathetic atmosphere is marginally convincing. I will admit that the lines “The last ten texts were with your ex/And all of ’em were sent by you/But you keep starin’ at your phone/Like something’s comin’ through” are kinda clever. I have to ask myself what the phrase “roll it on home” actually means, because the first thing that came to mind was getting in the car to make the long, lonely drive home, which is honestly bad advice if the dude’s been drinking that much. It could be referring to another form of stress relief that involves rolling something, I guess. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
12. You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me
Hey, speaking of doing impressions… John’s got a pretty convincing one in store for us here, as he closes the record with a cutesy piano ballad on which he does his damndest to imitate Randy Newman. I’m only vaguely familiar with Newman’s work (by which I mean I’ve seen the Toy Story films and The Naked Gun), and even I could tell what he was going for here. I don’t hate that idea in and of itself, but the few Newman songs I’ve heard had some sort of sly wit and offbeat storytelling befitting their musical personalities, while all John’s got going for him here is cutesy whistling, and the sentimental promise to remember someone who is no longer part of his life. That could be genuinely adorable if it was an old man saying a sweet farewell to his wife who had passed away, or Andy saying goodbye to Buzz and Woody when he moved away to college, but when you tie this one into the rest of the album and realize that he’s still clinging to the memories of his time with an ex who is about to march down the aisle with another man, cutesy takes a sudden detour into creepy. What that has to do with the opening verses about dinosaurs and planets and the most half-assed history of the universe ever set to music is beyond me. It’s a bit too late to cram “everything” into your last song when you’ve spent most of the record bent out of shape over a woman. The search is over, and John Mayer has come up mostly empty.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Still Feel Like Your Man $.75
Emoji of a Wave $1.25
Love on the Weekend $1
In the Blood $1.25
Theme From ‘The Search for Everything’ $.75
Moving On and Getting Over $.25
Never on the Day You Leave –$.25
Roll It On Home $0
You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me $.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: