John Mayer; he wasn’t always an asshole. And even when he was, what is popular music culture without its assholes? No Kanye West, no Mick Jagger, no Adam Levine with moves like Mick Jagger. No overly ambitious, widescreen leaps at greatness that sometimes hit the mark and more often fall flat. If you think about these assholes, actually, they’re very useful to the rest of us. Not only do they recalibrate our moral compass, but they offer us some concrete examples of what’s missing from the landscape they seek to dominate. John Mayer, of course, had been saying the same thing the whole time, but it took a huge fall from public grace for anyone to actually listen. Releasing an album every three years in exact increments, the perfect American workhorse, all Mayer wanted was for someone to sit up, sit back or sit down and really listen to the blues again. And so he pulled out all stops on Continuum, perhaps his finest work to date in a back catalogue that boasts nearly as many sales as he’s made apologies.
By 2006, Mayer was already burnt out. His two pop-rock experiments which included ‘No Such Thing’ had turned him into a serious star with clearly bankable assets; a perfectly husky voice, an endless supply of out-of-the-box chord progressions, a fondness for lead guitar and a face for the ladies. But Mayer, who had left Berklee Music school to pursue dreams of becoming an acoustic sensation, was tiring of the mode fast. He was and always will be a white-hot blues guitarist first, and so he threw in the towel on the easy road and committed himself fully to making a classic record which incorporated the sounds he grew up listening to; Clapton, Hendrix, King and Waters. I remember reading an interview around the time this album came out, where Mayer told the writer that he’d been spending time with Clapton, smoking weed for the first time in his life, and wondering how to get that signature sound out of his head and onto the page. Clapton (apparently) recommended driving around in a Ferrari so he could feel the primal throbbing of an engine under him, which is precisely what Mayer did right before he nearly ran it off the road. In any case, rubbing shoulders with history seems to have done the job, because I’d heard saccharine psuedo-ballads from Mayer before, but nothing quite like ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’.
I have huge respect for anybody who writes a slow-burner that actually burns. ‘Slow Dancing’ crawls out of the gates and has no intention of rushing off anywhere, using the space between each note to let the crack of the snare or the reverberations of a low string ring out into the silence. It’s produced marvellously, true, but there’s nowhere to hide less than exemplary playing. Mayer owns this song like it’s hus own child, the lyrics as worn and heartbroken as they were ever going to get, the arrangements tasteful and the guitar, well, it’s everything, right? Hendrix and his brethren may never have even dreamed of today’s studio technology, but it’s possible that they would have come out sounding something like John’s improvised passages between verses and that searing, aching solo. I have little doubt that he sat in the booth and recorded this twenty million times until he got it just right. It is just right. It’s moving work from a man who I honestly didn’t think was capable of it until this record, the slow disintegration of a love affair perfectly tracked to the bends and flexing of six strings and some pedals. Only an asshole would be so presumptuous as to try and sell people something they’d already forgotten they liked, in a way that sounds completly fresh and vibrant. It not for anything else, Mayer should be redeemed for that.
John Mayer – ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’