On to `Heavier Things'

John Mayer's latest CD is sophisticated, jazzy

November 25, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It was clear that he had nothing to hide, that he was just a regular, unadorned guy. On the Grammy telecast in February, John Mayer, looking like a college student in a T-shirt and sneakers, fluidly plucked his guitar and soulfully sang his breakout hit, "Your Body Is a Wonderland." After his performance, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter picked up the award for best male pop vocal, beating such widely respected veterans as Sting, James Taylor and Elton John.

Since then, Mayer, who performs at the 1st Mariner Arena tomorrow night, has become one of the biggest names in pop, a promising artist whose confessional, melancholic lyrics center on personal insecurities, love and its dizzying twists. His major-label debut album, 2001's Room for Squares, flowed with intricate jazzy chords, sometimes self-deprecating lyrics and Mayer's sensitive, husky voice. Three million people bought the album. The follow-up, Any Given Thursday, also reached multiplatinum sales.

His romantic tunes, nice-boy-down-the-street demeanor and intense chestnut eyes made Mayer an instant heartthrob, which puzzled the dude. ("You know, I just don't get it," he says seriously. "Not at all.") And his mature, below-the-surface approach appealed to everybody from coffeehouse regulars to PTA moms.

Mayer's new album is Heavier Things. Released in September, it debuted at No. 1 and quickly pushed a million units.

"I can already feel that it's my transitional record," says the Connecticut native, who's telephoning from a tour stop in Oklahoma City. "I feel like it's leading me into the next [album]."

The grooves throughout Heavier Things are strong, the chords sophisticated and more jazz-inflected than on Mayer's earlier work. Jack Joseph Puig, known for his work with the Verve Pipe, No Doubt and the Black Crows, produced the accessible set, which features underrated drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and celebrated jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Mayer maintains a calm, measured mood throughout, eschewing the detail-heavy lyrics and overwrought melodies that showed up from time to time on Room for Squares.

"I wanted to get away from the acoustic-guitar thing at the beginning of each song," says the New York resident. "Every genre has its cliches - like R&B riffs at the beginning, and singer-songwriter songs start off with guitar before the band comes in. And I wanted to do something different."

"Clarity," the first song on the album, whose title suggests Mayer's musical direction, opens with a sprightly keyboard line, a syncopated beat and Hargrove's circling, silvery notes. The singer's laid-back, corduroy vocals fall right into the groove. A bone-bare look at a runaway romance, "Clarity" is one of the album's many highlights. On the mid-tempo rock ballad "Something's Missing," Mayer contemplates the voids in his life: Something's missing/And I don't know how to fix it/Something's missing/And I don't know what it is at all ...

"I wanted to explore the emotional state of the songs," he says. "It's a band record, really. Everybody plays a part in how the songs come together."

Mayer's background is solidly middle class. He's the second of three sons. His mother, Margaret, is a retired schoolteacher, his father, Richard, a retired principal.

When, in high school, Mayer discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, his path was set. He was going to be a rock star, period. Just an average student, Mayer still managed to win a partial scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Once there, he felt the classes on technical proficiency stalled his creativity. So he dropped out, moved to Atlanta and played the club circuit.

Eventually, the artist signed with Aware Records, an imprint of Columbia. Through consistent touring, he amassed a supportive following. Along with Norah Jones, Mayer has helped shift the focus in pop from flash and bombast to stripped-down musicianship and lyrical class.

About his artistic evolution, the singer says, "The music develops on its own. As much as I try to keep my hands on the wheel, you know, I realize that I'm not driving the whole thing. I'm not in control. I just watch the music change and go with it."

John Mayer

Where: 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

When: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $35.50. Call Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com

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