Warp + Weft: John Mayer – Room For Squares

John Mayer
Room For Squares
Columbia
2001

First off, here are a couple of things I’m not going to do:

A.) Defend John Mayer based on his guitar playing, his admittedly gutsy move to make live trio albums that lean heavily on blues and soul, or his acceptance by players like Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton. I’m sorry, but if John Mayer is the best thing we can currently offer up as a guitar legend, then the guitarist-as-legend thing really is dead. And unfortunately, his bid for legitimacy as a musician has landed him square in Behind the Sun-era Eric Clapton territory, but by an inverted path; Clapton forsook his natural talents as a pure player to make bland pop music, and Mayer seems intent on shunning the sterling pop of his major label debut in favor of faux-bluesy, semi-soulful averageness.

B.) Try to convince you that his songwriting is somehow way deeper than you think it is. In fact, if anything, everything since Room For Squares has shown up his shortcomings: a lack of connective tissue in his metaphors, an unseemly desire to “make a difference” with his music, an impulse towards stripping down the music that doesn’t go far enough, and so abandons the lushness of his debut without making anything really interesting. The success of the writing on Room For Squares is staked to one essential feature of a debut record, and that’s mostly what I’ll be getting at.

C.) Talk very much about Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, or any of that kind of crap. Even though talking about how Mayer’s seen Jessica Simpson naked would probably drive up my hit count. Actually, writing that probably just drove up my hit count.

That said, I have to start with something a little tabloid-esque, because what really interests me about John Mayer’s major label debut is how at the tender of age of no more than 24, and probably more like 22 or 23 (Mayer was born in ’77, Room For Squares came out in 2001), Mayer, in one of his many paeans to ultra-romantic love, penned the line, “It’s the kind of thing you only see / in scented, glossy magazines,” and then proceeded over the next several years to date women such as those mentioned in C.), who have all spent their share of time on the covers and in the pages of everything from People to GQ to Cosmo. He himself has been featured in many of those same magazines. His life has become fodder for tabloids; case in point, since I started working on this piece, the news has broken that he and Jennifer Aniston have split up. His Wikipedia page has been dutifully updated.

This is a guy who, at least five years before it happened, wrote a song that concludes with him singing, “I just can’t wait ’til my 10 year reunion / I’m gonna bust down the double doors / And when I stand on these tables before you / You will know what all this time was for.” And although I doubt he actually went, he could have gone back to his high school with five Grammies, numerous other awards, somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 million records sold, and one of the beautiful people on his arm.

That’s fucking amazing.

It’s easy with hindsight to see his success as pre-ordained—to listen to Room For Squares with a jaded ear and crack on him for the sappiness and sentimentality it’s drenched in. But if you can put a check on those things for a moment, you can hear it for what it was just before it was released to the wider world: the work of an intelligent and talented musician whose songwriting was witty, heartfelt, and pitched perfectly for pop success. What makes the songs on Room For Squares really work is their earnestly aspirational quality.

It’s shot through the entire album: “I just can’t wait,” “I just wanna be liked, I just wanna be funny,” “If only my life was more like 1983,” “You’ll be with me next time,” “I’m tired of being alone,” “You should go explore,” “We’ll both be safe ’til St. Patrick’s Day.” Mayer’s wishes and dreams are writ large across the album, his doubts cast into the shadows, and his life remade, bigger and better. It’s precisely the kind of salvation that pop music promises and here Mayer is grabbing it by the horns.

He’s confident, but questioning. As sure as he is of himself in “No Such Thing” when he sings about that high school reunion, he follows it with “Why Georgia,” where the bridge implores, “Don’t believe me / when I say I’ve got it down.” And although the songs are clearly drawn from his life (Mayer moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1998 after leaving Berklee College of Music in Boston), they’re not confessional. Unlike a songwriter such as Elliott Smith, whose songs are thick and twisted, leaning on stories of addiction and dependence as metaphors for personal relationships, Mayer is almost metaphor-free. “Your Body Is A Wonderland.” Honestly, it is, he’s saying. The song “3×5” is quite literally about photographs, and not as a symbol of something else, but about how he’s stopped taking them so he can experience life in the moment.

Throughout the record, he’s taking the personal and fitting it so neatly into the universal that the seams disappear completely, as do the messy complications. What we’re left with is a big screen take on life, with conflicts and resolutions straight out of a romantic comedy.

As a result, the songs on Room For Squares are almost weightless; surely it can’t be entirely coincidental that the follow-up was called Heavier Things. But that diaphanous quality is the very essence of pop, and it’s not something that’s easily achieved. It’s easy to forget because we’re surrounded with such drivel on the radio all the time, but compare the clunky, ungraceful, and completely manufactured music of, say, Jessica Simpson or Avril Lavigne, with the lithe and humble contours of “Your Body Is A Wonderland” and it’s easy to see the difference.

I know: You’ve heard it a million times, and it doesn’t have near the resiliency of a tune like “Every Breath You Take” or “With or Without You,” but if you really pay attention to “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” I think you’ll be hard-pressed to refuse its pop perfection, even if you still hate it. Think again of who he was when he wrote it—this song is for a real person, and more than it is a chronicle of perfection, it’s about the way love elevates us into something better.

It elevates the narrator into a poet and the beloved into a work of art. Perhaps an inconsistent poet (“One pair of candy lips and / your bubblegum tongue” is not quite Shakespeare), but when Mayer juggles his syllables into internal rhymes, singing, “I’ll never let your head hit the bed / without my hand behind it,” it’s nothing short of pop nirvana—a casually tossed out line that hits, explodes into a million little stars, and is quickly washed away by the chorus. It embodies the best qualities of the song and the record itself because there’s nothing behind it other than they joy of the way the words play against the melody, and that desire to make us out as better than we are.

Take “My Stupid Mouth” as another example of Mayer’s effervescent lyrical touch. The second verse elaborates on the narrator’s inability to edit himself, and it’s practically a textbook of smart-ass, overly clever pop writing:

We bit our lips. She looked out the window
Rolling tiny balls of napkin paper
I played a quick game of chess
with the salt and pepper shaker
And I could see clearly
An indelible line was drawn
Between what was good what just
slipped out and what went wrong.

It might not be your cup of tea. Maybe you prefer lyrics that leave room for interpretation. I myself am a big fan of Radiohead, Wilco, and At the Drive-In as some of the best bands at harnessing subconscious associations into compelling songs. But in a world with Creed (“Well I don’t know if I’m ready / To be the man I have to be / I’ll take a breath, I’ll take her by my side / We stand in awe, we’ve created life”), Mayer’s sharp eye for detail and storytelling has a wealth of subtlety and beauty to it.

Stream “Neon” below:

Occasionally, he even manages some solid imagery. Even if the idea of a party girl who buzzes just like neon in “Neon” is maybe a little flat, the song opens with an evocative verse: “When sky blue gets dark enough / to see the colors of the city lights, / a trail of ruby red and diamond white / hits her like a sunrise.” The music in “Neon” also happens to be some of the album’s best, a slippery groove staked to an evasive and hide-and-seek guitar line. Like “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” “Neon” doesn’t transcend pop so much as lightly refute its lowest common denominator.

After all, there’s playing to the crowd and then there’s playing to the crowd, as Shakespeare showed, and in the spectrum of pop music there’s a wide range from pandering to skillfully manipulating to rebelling. If Mayer were more iconoclastic on Room For Squares, there’s little guarantee it would be a better album. He’s a talented guitarist from a middle class upbringing who can write a catchy song—a dude, basically—so why should he try to be something he’s not? Instead, he’s chosen to excel at what he’s good at.

He’s still basically doing what he’s good at, but the yearning on Room For Squares—and the sense that that yearning will be answered if he can only know himself better, can be a little kinder—is what makes it just a bit more than a straight pop album. His success since its release has made the whole thing look more than a little Alanis-Morissette-ironic, which is why its worth trying to remember that he didn’t know he was going to make it when he recorded Room For Squares.

I get to say I knew better, though. I bought Room For Squares soon after it came out based on what I heard on a listening station at a Borders in West Hartford, Conn., not far from where Mayer grew up. I listened to the whole thing on the way home, and talking to my girlfriend on the phone that night, I told her, “I better play this for you soon so you can enjoy it, because in six months, you’re going to hate this guy.”

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