Music Preview: John Mayer takes strides with new record

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Tony Gutierrez, The Associated Press
John Mayer co-headlines with Sheryl Crow at the Post-Gazette Pavilion tonight.
Click photo for larger image.

John Mayer

With: Sheryl Crow.
Where: Post-Gazette Pavilion.
When: 7:30 tonight.
Tickets: $25-$85; 412-323-1919.

John Mayer is in a situation where his cart is coming before his horse. The singer-songwriter's summer tour starts tonight at the Post-Gazette Pavilion, but his new record, "Continuum," doesn't drop until Sept. 12.

"I just had to get it right," he says of the record's delay. "Every month we had to decide to go another month. I would have loved to have gone on the road in June, but the bottom line is, a very respectable artist told me on the phone one time, 'No one questioned if 'Sgt. Pepper' came out six months late.' Once it's out, it will be out forever and no one will care."

The only logical follow-up to a comment like that is a trap: Are you saying, John Mayer, that your record's as good as "Sgt. Pepper"?

"Wow. You could really ruin my career with that," Mayer says laughing, then explains, "You would certainly use 'Sgt. Pepper' as an example to try to calm a kid and tell him that no one is really going to freak out if his record doesn't come out exactly on time."

"Continuum" may not be "Sgt. Pepper" -- what is? -- but it's certainly moving Mayer in the right direction. His first two efforts, "Room for Squares" and "Heavier Things," sold more than 8 million albums and earned him three Grammys. But the self-produced "Continuum," coming off his bluesier side project with the John Mayer Trio, sounds more soulful, more assured and even more topical.

" 'Continuum' is the same intention of a record that 'Heavier Things' and 'Room for Squares' was," he says, "but I have more experience in putting music out that I thought was going to be X and turned out to be Y or X and a half. And as an artist now, I know how to create something that pre-emptively fights aging or pre-emptively fights being misunderstood, because I know how to build into the music everything I want out of the world. I had all the time in the world to make sure this record was everything, and it is -- and because it is," he jokes, "all I want to do is lay in bed. And that's the problem, because they don't make road cases for a bed."

Pop fans don't expect a political diatribe from Mayer, an artist who built his career on "Your Body Is a Wonderland," and that's not what he delivers on "Continuum." But he does use this platform to touch on the state of democracy with the first single "Waiting on the World to Change."

"I guess I did comment on world affairs," he says, "but as an artist my prism is through the heart and through being emotional. I think world affairs are more emotional than they've ever been before. If I were a political artist I'd be singing about lobbyists. But I'm singing about lifestyles. There are people far brighter than me who are able to opine on politics and give people understanding and perspective."

Then he opines not on politics so much as the feeling of helplessness and loss of control as a result of political decisions. "That's what 'Waiting on the World to Change' is. We're kind of waiting to get it back, to get the steering wheel back. We were kind of told through history that we were going to have a say, but there was a little bit of 'Well, I think we're kind of in trouble, so I have to take the stick back.' There's that feeling of getting to a point in your life where you want to take advantage of democracy, and democracy not being there. That's an interesting emotional thing. I don't have idea one about the political ramification of that, but I know what it feels like to watch TV and think, 'Damn, I got it in my heart to want to change this,' but I know the only thing that would change would be my heart and it would make me miserable. It would make me a screamer."

Far from screaming, "Waiting on the World to Change" has the bouncy groove of a Smokey Robinson song as Mayer sets out to defend his generation for not beating down some doors in Washington.

"That's the part that I think is the most compelling," he says. "That's where it's going to rub people a little bit. They're going to say, 'Are you proud about that? Why are you bouncy?' I think we should be bouncy. Bouncy is a hell of a lot better than being jaded. If John Mayer's new song was 'We've Got to Wake Up' and, in parentheses, 'And Change the World,' you'd vomit on your CD. 'Waiting on the World to Change' is giving people the benefit of the doubt. I'd like to believe that the reason our generation isn't marching is that we're smart enough to know that if we took to the streets, a million wide and deep, they'd say, 'I didn't see a million. I saw more like 400.' We know that. My generation knows that. We know that the fight ain't fair."

Elsewhere on "Continuum," there are plenty of the kind of relationship songs that people want from Mayer. He also shows off his blues guitar prowess with a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Bold As Love."

A bold step for a young pop musician like Mayer?

"I'm in my third record," he says. "No one thinks I'm covering a song because I can't write one more. Even if I don't have what it takes, which I probably don't, to cover a Jimi Hendrix song, I have at least proven myself to be true to the art and true to the message and true to the spirit. And I'm also coming at it as a singer-songwriter, because I believe Hendrix was a brilliant singer-songwriter and I'm defending that memory with 'Bold As Love.' And defending music as music. There are no musical hallowed grounds if you walk into them pure of heart."

Sheryl Crow might not be a hallowed ground like Hendrix, but Mayer's tourmate is a well-respected and well-loved pop star, and he's honored to have her as his co-headliner.

"The reason I hadn't thought of Sheryl in my brainstorming is that Sheryl is a much more established artist than I am, and I just have a mechanism in my brain that says, 'Let's not get carried away.' I wouldn't naturally think of people who are more successful than me, because I don't feel like I would have a chance. The more I thought about it the more it made sense on a musical level. The music overlaps, the fans overlap, but, most importantly, the musical intention overlaps. We both have a unique contract with pop in that we have a greater love of a greater breadth of music, but our real obligation is to making music that a lot of people listen to and like. It's in that beguiling dance that we find who we are. Sheryl's heroes are in black and white photos, and so are mine."


Weekend editor Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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