John Mayer Continuum

John Mayer

Continuum

John Mayer - 'Continuum'
Columbia Records  •  Sep 12th, 2006
Retrospective
Buy it on Amazon.

From the moment it was released, it seemed like John Mayer’s Continuum was poised to be a classic. That’s not because Mayer was particular respected at the time. Sure, Mayer hadn’t yet put his foot in his mouth by making stupid comments to interviewers. Still, though, the Berklee dropout turned pop sensation wasn’t exactly anyone’s first bet in the “guess who will have career longevity” game. It was obvious from early on that Mayer had chops, and equally obvious that he could write a damn sturdy pop song. (Listen to Room for Squares and tell me those tunes don’t still sound like hits.) But he was a teen pop icon first and foremost, and most of his songs seemed destined to become relics of early 2000s radio. You need only listen to “Your Body Is a Wonderland” once to realize how easily Mayer could have been a pop cultural punchline 10 years after the fact.

Continuum changed all that in the space of 12 songs. Mayer’s second album, 2003’s Heavier Things, had mellowed out his sound a bit and taken him in a more mature lyrical direction, but the changes had been small progressions rather than quantum leaps forward. The record was good, but it didn’t scream “classic” and it wasn’t Mayer’s ticket out of the Jason Mraz/Gavin Degraw/Josh Kelley/Jack Johnson club.

In 2005, though, Mayer started to show signs that he wasn’t going to be the sensitive pop singer songwriter anymore. On September 10th of that year, he appeared on television for the ReAct Now concert, a four-and-a-half-hour Hurricane Katrina benefit that spanned multiple cities. Gone was Mayer’s previous clean-cut image, and gone was his old pop-driven sound. Sporting long hair, billed as the “John Mayer Trio,” and performing alongside seasoned vets Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan, Mayer played a bluesy slowburn number called “Gravity.” The song was arguably the standout performance of the night, and I vividly recall hearing Mayer sing the line “Gravity, stay the hell away from me” for the first time and getting chills down my spine. Right afterward, I was online, looking for any word on Mayer’s next album, or where I might get my hands on the song.

I wouldn’t have to wait long. A few months later, the John Mayer Trio released Try!, a live album that was part new material, part covers, and part expanded live versions of Heavier Things tracks. The main draw was “Gravity,” but I recall not being particularly taken with the rest of the record initially. I’d loved Mayer’s first records largely for their catchy melodies and contemplative balladry. Try! was fun, but it was all long guitar solos and jam band improvisation—neither things that I necessarily wanted to listen to repeatedly. Despite my love for “Gravity,” I was suddenly skeptical about Mayer’s new forays into the world of blues, soul, and jazz.

Almost a year to the day after the ReAct Now concert, a studio version of “Gravity” finally arrived, as the fourth track on Mayer’s third full-length, Continuum. For whatever reason, I didn’t buy the album right away. I think I was waiting for someone to tell me that Mayer hadn’t completely forsaken his old sound, that the balladry was still there, and that the jams were kept to a minimum. When someone online finally reassured me that Continuum struck the perfect balance between Mayer’s old sound and his new direction, I ordered it off Amazon, alongside the second album from The Killers. Given how much I’d loved Hot Fuss, I expected to spend a lot of time with Sam’s Town for the first few weeks and then transition into Continuum. Ironically, Sam’s Town was the album that rubbed me the wrong way by straying too far from its predecessor. (Note: I’ve long since recanted on this stance.) Continuum, on the other hand, felt like home.

From the album cover to the liner notes to the soulful hook of opener “Waiting on the World to Change,” Continuum is an album that feels timeless on every level. Mayer could still write a catchy chorus, too. The “Waiting on the World to Change” hook is arguably too infectious, lodging itself in your brain after a single listen and refusing to budge, while the “We’re never gonna win the world/We’re never gonna stop the war” refrain on “Belief” is a subtler but no less striking earworm. He could also still write a ballad, with Continuum taking a much more downbeat and restrained path than I expected after hearing the songs on Try! But from the weightier feel of the songs to the sharper focus on instrumental virtuosity, Continuum took Mayer’s sound and made it feel like the furthest thing from teen pop—all without alienating fans that had been there from the beginning.

If Room for Squares saw Mayer writing sturdy pop songs that just about anyone could have recorded and gotten on the radio with, Continuum was the sound of him writing American songbook classics. “Waiting on the World to Change,” though far from my favorite Mayer song, defined millennial discouragement long before millennials were the targets of every social media complainer; “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” parlayed one of the all-time greatest song titles into one of the all-time greatest breakup songs; and “Gravity” became a well-deserved blues/soul classic for the modern era—a song whose guitar solo even made it onto Rolling Stone’s list of the best solos of all time.

10 years later, it’s easy to forget just how incredible these songs are. Mayer’s had a roller coaster of a decade, dropping three solo albums, alienating himself from the entire world following a disastrous Playboy interview, becoming a folk and alt-country artist for a spell, temporarily losing his voice to a rare condition called granuloma, and stepping in as Jerry Garcia’s spiritual successor for the Grateful Dead spinoff Dead & Company. Some days, I even feel inclined to call 2012’s Born & Raised my favorite Mayer album, just because I appreciate his take on folk music so much. But it’s tough to look at the Continuum tracklist or listen through this record and hear it as anything other than the crown jewel of an immensely talented artist’s career. The guitar solos hit harder: see John’s pitch-perfect emulation of Jimi Hendrix on the cover of “Bold as Love.” The compositions are more ambitious: see the organ-abetted sprawl of “In Repair.” The sensitive, contemplative moments offer more to ponder: see “Stop This Train,” one of the best songs ever written about growing up and growing old. I defy anyone to listen to these songs, with an open and objective mind, and tell me they aren’t superb examples of craft. Even if you hate John Mayer for his obnoxious public persona; even if you mock his early hits; even if you wrote him off long ago as a pretty boy with a guitar, these songs are undeniable.

The list goes on, too. “Belief” manages to be anti-war without being preachy; “I Don’t Trust Myself (with Loving You)” proved that John had what it took to name Clapton as a core influence and justify it; “Heart of Life” previewed the beautiful restraint of Mayer’s folk side, years before he made a full record in that vein; “Dreaming with a Broken Heart” showed that Mayer could still write heartbreak songs for the same “co-eds” that had fallen in love with his first two albums; and “I’m Gonna Find Another You” saw him at his most soulful, adding horns into the mix for a song that immediately felt like it could have been cut by any soul or R&B artist in the ’60s or ’70s.

It is not easy to write songs that emulate the styles of bygone eras—and that sound like they could have come from those bygone eras—without being overly derivative or copycat-ish. One of the most impressive facets of Continuum is that Mayer pulls it off every single time. From his lyricism to his guitarwork to the arrangements of the songs to the production—which Mayer and Steve Jordan handled together—Continuum has the feel, sheen, and importance of records that are 20, 30, 40 years older than it. It’s funny: leading up to the release of Sam’s Town, Brandon Flowers said that the second Killers record would be “one of the best in the past 20 years.” Of the records released in the fall of 2006, though, Continuum was the one that deserved that distinction. From the beginning, it felt like an album that people would still be listening to in 20 or 30 years, and it still does. It’s a genuine classic from the era where monoculture died.

Continuum landed multiple songs on the radio, got a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and earned Mayer the label of “Guitar God” from Rolling Stone. All told, it turned him from a teen pop idol into a respected musician. It probably goes without saying that, if it weren’t for this album, there’s no way Mayer gets to play with Buddy Guy and B.B. King, serve as a core collaborator on Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE, or join Dead & Company.

But Continuum is most striking for how human it is. Mayer’s PR status of “douchebag” makes it easy to write off just how good he is at capturing the human condition, but his songs straddle the personal and universal better than virtually any famous songwriter this side of Bono. Ask me to list 25 songs I wish I’d written, and chances are that both “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” and “Stop This Train” would be on there, simply for how well they capture moments that just about everyone goes through at some point in life. The former lays a relationship to rest in flames and resignation, with the first four lines alone (“It’s not a silly little moment/It’s not the storm before the calm/This is the deep and dying breath/Of this love that we’ve been working on”) doing more to relate both the pain and acceptance of heartbreak than most pop punk bands have mustered in entire catalogs.

As for “Stop This Train,” I can’t listen to those verses without contemplating my own mortality a bit. Back a few years ago, before I’d lost anyone very close to me, that song struck me as the encapsulation of dying youth. “I play the numbers game to find a way to say that life has just begun,” Mayer sings in the third verse: he’s the Peter Pan archetype, the guy who doesn’t want to accept that he ain’t that young anymore. After I lost my grandpa, though, the song took on new dimensions. “Stop This Train” isn’t just about dying youth; it’s about time in general, and how everything changes faster than you ever thought it would. “Once in awhile, when it’s good/It’ll feel like it should/When you’re all still around/And you’re still safe and sound/And you don’t miss a thing/’Til you cry when you’re driving away in the dark,” goes the bridge. The profundity of the pain in those words is limitless, because we always think we’ll get more time with the people we love. One more visit; one more vacation; one more Christmas; one more conversation; one more night out at the bar. When you lose someone and realize those things aren’t possibilities anymore, it really rips the rug out from under you. “Stop This Train” captures the essence of that feeling as well as any song I’ve ever heard.

Even if John Mayer never makes another record as great as this one again—and him doing so is unlikely—I feel like Continuum has preserved his place in the canon of post-millennial rock stars. This is the record they’ll talk about when they inevitably induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is the album that artists a decade or two down the road will be calling back to as something they are trying to recreate. This is the album that will ensure his legacy. I enjoy every album John Mayer has ever made, and I’d be totally fine if he continued his trek down the roads of folk and alt-country. Continuum, though, will always be his definitive masterpiece.

Craig Manning
Craig Manning Craig Manning is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @FurtherFromSky on Twitter and on Facebook.