The Freelance Mentalists.
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
One of the strongest EPs I've heard in a long time is John Mayer's Clarity, which can be found by programming his Heavier Things CD for tracks 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 10 and imagining that you're flipping a record over half way through. This imaginary release, easily the finest from an American male singer-songwriter this decade (Hearts Of Oak doen't count because his band is too important and Greendale is a third-person concept album which makes its quality way more impressive but something else all together), abandons the blues fetishism that kept him from achieving his true meaning in life: providing a rational role model for self-involved young men trying to be good to others while getting theirs.

The EP opens with the title track, in which John Mayer steps back, realizes he's King Shit and hums an innocent little melody while dancing with trumpets over a beat either provided by ?uestlove or Matt Chamberlain (it's actually nice for them to leave this vague in the credits, lest we assume that the Roots drummer is doing some magical negro Bagger Vance shit). Transcending the gawky role models we assumed this guy has based on stage presence and guitar-strap length, the song swells with an epiphanal warmth and wisdom more comparible to Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder than anybody who's rocked the HORDE Festival. Thing is, right when his voice is about to become Morrison's (impressive enough), he emits this sudden high-pitched wail, almost off-putting in its naked vulnerability. Neither of the songs obvious role models ever sounded so helpless in the throes of musical, mystical ecstacy: it's the birth cry of a true original. Radio and VH1, not used to this kind of breakthrough, have been given an edit that fades out beforehand. Fucking bullshit.

Fitting with Mayer's observance that he's going to spend the rest of his life pretending that his moment of revelation lasted (even though it can't since he's too aware now - how's that for an endearing insight?), the rest of the EP is relatively earthbound, settling for what once seemed like the peak of his potential accomplishments: being the mainstream TRAVIS Morrison. "Bigger Than My Body" sounds like something off the D-Plan's Change if Jack Joseph Puig was allowed to fuck it shiny and adult-contemporary-like. Both singers are audibly inspired by the intelligent, jazzy pop of the Police but thankfully infuse it with the self-deprecating yet earnest humility of a suburban American guy who learned romance from Bill Murray and Tom Hanks comedies (their bass players both dance even goofier than they do as well, and I wouldn't be surprised if John Mayer's drummer wears gloves like that D-Plan guy). "Home Life"'s quirky pines for domesticity and eternal dedication ("I will marry just once/ And if it doesn't work out/ Give her half of my stuff/ It's fine with me/ We said eternity/ And I will go to my grave/ With the life that I gave/ Not just some melody line/ On a radio wave") probably would make Morrison more than a bit envious; I can't imagine anybody over 30 writing something so dorkily selfless.

What happens to Mayer while you're flipping over the imaginary 12-inch is that his smarmy, confident ass is now painfully single (you can bet that ALL his single friends are happy about this - no more satisfied-with-life grins from that asshole!). It takes him three verses of pointed observation ("and it stings when it nobody’s fault/ cause there's nothing to blame/ at the drop of a name/ it’s only the air you took/ and the breath you left") to whip out some naked self-pity ("And I know it was me who called it over/ but I still wish you'd fought me ‘til your dying day/ don’t let me get away"). He must have been scared hearing himself cry for someone's help, so next line he's back at the mirror saying he "can’t wait to figure out what’s wrong with me/So I can say 'this is the way that I used to be'/There’s no substitute for time" (I'm guessing the Magnetic Fields' "It's Only Time" is a scary song for him too). The closing tracks show him using thoughts about the effects of nurture ("On behalf of every man, looking out for every girl/ you are the god and the weight of her world/ so fathers be good to your daughters/ daughters will love like you do") and the transience of life ("You can't build a house of leaves/ and live like it's an evergreen/ it's just a season thing/ it's just this thing that seasons do") to keep from drowning in emo-style sorrow or breaking into "Poison" (be it Alice Cooper's or BelBivDevoe's). It's telling that his last words here are "I believe that my life's gonna see/ the love I give return to me," taking that legendary Macca farewell and turning it into a personal pacifier.

The guy's like bizarro-world Gang Of Four, using learned wisdom to tell himself everything's going to be alright. A self-professed teetotaller with a fear of mental illness, Mayer's got a need for understanding and order, his gentle ways are inspired by a desire to not deserve any shit he's given, not some genuinely altruistic nature. Thing is, I'm not really sure ANYBODY has a genuinely altruistic nature, and its refreshing to hear kind words that don't pretend to be motivated by anything other than self-interest and "a slight of [his] mother's hand." His guide for avoiding unnecessary torment and achieving self-satisfaction has a relatively small body count and should only be resented by people like the woman who dumped him before "Split-Screen Sadness." He strikes me as the kind of guy who would invite me to a sportsbar and rightfully tell me to get over myself when I balk. Stevie Ray Vaughn fans are people too (though judging by the other four tracks on the REAL album, my jury's still out on Stevie Ray wanna-be's).
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