A recent, admittedly unscientific survey of female music fans revealed two seemingly universal, if diametrically opposed, views of singer-songwriter John Mayer. For every woman who thinks his big hit single of last year, ”Your Body Is a Wonderland,” was a gloriously romantic statement and that Mayer is a sensitive, poetic sort, there’s another who sees both the song and him as slightly smarmy, phony, and pandering. Male opinion, on the other hand, is near monolithic and goes something like this: He’s all right, I guess, but I’d rather listen to Dave Matthews Band, man.
Maybe Mayer should have called his new album ”Well, the Men Don’t Know, But Some of the Little Girls Understand.” Alas, he chose to name it Heavier Things, a title that implies this is some sort of leap forward from his major-label debut, 2001’s thoroughly inoffensive, even pleasant ”Room for Squares.” He wants you to know that this new stuff is ”heavy” — as in profound, thought-provoking, illuminating, and deserving of rapt attention and prolonged contemplation. If, he seems to be saying, you found my Grammy-winning single ”Wonderland” to be hot, this is where I really get visionary on you.
So just how heavy is John Mayer? For starters, let’s examine ”Things”’ first single, ”Bigger Than My Body.” Whether or not Mayer is making some sort of not-so-subtle allusion to his smash hit, it’s a catchy enough tune with a slowly percolating coffeehouse-funk feel to it. He delivers it in that trademark breathy dream voice that makes it sound as if he’s in a permanently transcendent fugue state on some whole other spiritual plane that you too might be able to reach if you listen really carefully. What sort of high-flown topic might he be singing about? Well, judging from the lyrics, it sounds suspiciously like careerism. ”Someday I’ll fly/Someday I’ll soar/Someday I’ll be so damn much more,” he hungrily decrees, before going on to profess that he’ll ”gladly go down in a flame/If a flame’s what it takes to remember my name.”
As another quintessentially heavy-rock artist once noted, it’s better to burn out than to fade away. And, hey, it’s no sin to want to build on your success, keep selling records, and continue being a star. In fact, let’s give Mayer props for so nakedly copping to his aspirations. He may be cocky, but he reveals a fairly dry humorous streak in places, as in the lyrics of ”New Deep”: ”I’m so alive/I’m so enlightened/I can barely survive/A night in my mind/I’ve got a plan/I’m gonna find out just how boring I am/And have a good time.” (And for a pithy postmodern catchphrase, you can’t do much better than ”Numb is the new deep.”)
For a young dude (he’s 25), Mayer is remarkably conversant with adult-contemporary aesthetics. Witness ”Daughters,” a warm-and-fuzzy meditation that should delight sentimental parents the world over: ”Fathers be good to your daughters/Daughters will love like you do/Girls become lovers who turn into mothers/So mothers, be good to your daughters too.” Hallmark couldn’t have said it better.
Musically, Mayer sets his words to tasteful instrumental arrangements that won’t jangle any nerves. There are plenty of cozy-sounding acoustic guitar licks, understated keyboard motifs, even some horn-y ornamentation (jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove appears on ”Clarity”). Add Mayer’s airy-fairy vocals, and the resulting sounds could be dubbed fey contempo (or perhaps Oy Fey!). Overall, ”Heavier Things” is snappier than, say, a Bruce Hornsby CD, if not as rockin’ and emotion-drenched as the latest from Dashboard Confessional.
So where does Mayer fit in the pop cosmogony? Firmly in the sensitive-singer-songwriter-whom- chicks-dig division, where heaviness is relative. Deciding whether he is a James Taylor or a Harry Chapin for our time is a tougher call. One thing’s certain: He has yet to write a song as heavy as ”Fire and Rain” — or ”Taxi,” for that matter.