And as I continue to long for him in his absence, I return to finish up the list of my personal top 10 songs of John Mayer’s career. You can view the first half here.
6. SLOW DANCING IN A BURNING ROOM listen • download
From Continuum, 2006.
Notable lyric: “I was the one you always dreamed of. You were the one I tried to draw. How dare you say it’s nothing do me? Baby, you’re the only light I ever saw.”
Every once in a while there comes a song so packed full of emotion and heartbreak, you can’t get it out of your mind. (Adele’s “Someone Like You,” for a most recent example.) When this album came out and this song first graced my unsuspecting eardrums – though I was incredibly happy overall at 17 – I found myself so caught in “Slow Dancing” that the gloom was almost too beautiful not to experience somehow. In his typical way, John manages to capture a facet of love (and life) that few ever thought to acknowledge, but that everyone is at least a little bit familiar with. “This is the deep and dying breath of this love that we’ve been working on,” he sings, as his guitar wails and weeps. Watching him perform this song live is and always will be a somehow surreal experience, because he transports you into that burning room with him, and you feel everything. That kind of power in songwriting is rare, even in John’s work, so this track is certainly something worth celebrating.
7. STOP THIS TRAIN listen • download
From Continuum, 2006.
Notable lyric: “Had a talk with my old man. I said, ‘Help me understand.’ He said, ‘Turn 68. You’ll renegotiate.'”
Okay, alright, we get it. Letting go is hard and things don’t last forever. This song along with “Heart of Life” are examples of a new acoustic playing style John was working back into his repertoire – the flick-and-snap, for all you players out there. (Yeah, because that’s a real official sounding term. I don’t know what else to call the technique! He slaps one string and flicks another! At the same time!) To me, that sound was so definitive of the album that I remember the very first thing I thought of upon hearing “Who Says?” from Battle Studies two years later was “Gee. This sounds a lot like ‘Stop This Train.'” The sound, style, and conversation with his father about life and love all carved this song a spot in my top 10.
8. HEARTBREAK WARFARE listen • download
From Battle Studies, 2009.
Notable lyric: “How come the only way to know how high you get me is to see how far I fall?
God only knows how much I’d love you if you let me, but I can’t break through it all.”
Opening up his most recent studio release, “Heartbreak Warfare” really embodies the metaphor. Honestly there are a lot of things I dislike about Battle Studies, but the love I have for this track (and “Assassin“) make me listen to this album all the time. Battle Studies feels a little quieter and subdued on a first listen, but there’s an underlying intensity in every song that comes through more and more as time goes on. He grapples a lot with moving on from lost love, and the album comes out around the highly publicized split between him and Jennifer Anniston. The instrumentation on the song is beautiful, and its rise and fall are subtle, like watching war footage on low. To me, the whole album is another step on John’s seemingly delayed road to artistic adulthood, and “Heartbreak Warfare” aggressively handles a painful relationship, trodden with emotional abuse, in a way that makes you see him as the character coming out on top.
9. STITCHED UP (W/ HERBIE HANCOCK) listen • download
From Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities, 2005.
Notable lyric: “Here’s the thing: That girl is flawless, and I know I’m not the first one to think that. And since I’m not the first, I sure won’t be the last. Spend my whole life looking behind my back? I just don’t think I’m up to that.”
This is one of two songs I felt I had to include; even though it wasn’t recorded for any of John’s studio albums, it really demonstrate his versatility and talent as a musician. I was so pleased when I heard John would be collaborating with legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, and when I heard the song, I was floored. It was all joy, and fun, and sass, and sexy. My God, is this song sexy! John wrote the groove you hear from the get go, that whole progression is him and it compliments Herbie’s style (the breakdown near the end) and the pair play off each other so smoothly. It’s totally natural. When I think of the duo I think of a different pair who collaborated on a song together more recently. Just hear me out. In a “behind the scenes” bit for Beyonce/Lady Gaga’s “Video Phone” music video shoot, the director steps aside as Beyonce and Lady Gaga are dancing, and he says “That’s how Good Beyonce is. She adjusts all her moves to match Gaga’s, even if it’s not perfect.” This is not to say that Herbie (or Gaga) aren’t perfect. But if you’ve seen John live, you know that when he puts his blues-cap on, he is Mr. Bluesman 3000, soloing like crazy and going to town. Aside from the fact that this song was done in studio, he really reels it in and makes sure to respect Herbie, putting the legend’s expertise on display while not minimizing his own guitar virtuoso (for which he was asked to be on the album in the first place, I’m sure). But mainly I just included this song because it’s really sexy.
10. IN YOUR ATMOSPHERE listen • download
From Where the Light Is, 2008.
Notable lyric: “I don’t think I’m gonna go to LA anymore. I don’t know what it’s like to land and not race to your door.”
Okay. So there are a lot of reasons why “In Your Atmosphere” doesn’t belong on this list. Lyrically, it’s not entirely impressive – it’s pointed and a little clumsy at times. The guitar is lovely enough and it’s very much reflective of John’s ‘old’ style, back in the early 2000s. But the thing that puts it on this list, beating out so many other obvious choices (“3×5”? “Why Georgia”? “CITY LOVE”?!) is that it is, entirely, pathetic. Here’s this New York man who for whatever reason broke it off with this absolutely stunning starlet (whose name may or may not rhyme with Bennifer Dove Mewitt) and he sees her name and her face anywhere and he’s so devastated by this loss that he can’t imagine ever seeing her again and keeping his shit together, but he has no idea how to function across the country in Los Angeles outside of the context of going there for her. That’s pretty pathetic. And at the same time, as a woman, I am all but brought to my knees at this, and I also understand the need to avoid and erase and walk away, for the good of everyone involved, before I do something stupid. After letting someone go our minds try to trick us into thinking, sometimes, that we can let him/her go as one thing while still staying in his/her life as another. “In Your Atmosphere” handles that vulnerability and insecurity and downright uncertainty – in my opinion – masterfully. Despite it’s other setbacks, the song is a real work. And that John decided to play it at the Where The Light Is show makes me think that even he understands how special it is.
“There is danger in theoretical speculation of battle, in prejudice, in false reasoning, in pride, in braggadocio. There is one safe resource, the return to nature.”
John was one of the first artists to embrace online media as a form of communicating with his fans, and he became pretty famous for always doing it all himself. No publicists, no filters, all Mayer and nothing else. Famously this got him into trouble a number of times. The quote above was written in his official blog at JohnMayer.com, and if I remember correctly, it was the only entry at the time, as he had gone back and erased every previous entry archived.
It seems like he is in a continuous state of reinvention, and that is why I can’t stay mad. Every time he falls, I know that he is better, and he picks himself up again to grow. And isn’t that the sign of a true artist? Some people will know and remember him for who he dated, or for his Borat bathing suit. But I hope that there are others like me who listen to his music and hear the impossible guitar skills he was born with, and the raw honesty in his lyrics. (Word to the wise: don’t listen to too much John Mayer if you have a broken heart.) He has an exceptional hold over the English language as a writer, and has a beautiful mind with important things to say, if you wade past all the bullshit and just listen. I don’t feel that he should be discredited of all his talents just because he likes to get a little drunk and talk to paparazzi once in a while. I don’t think anyone can truly know until you see him live. Until you hear the passion on the guitar, and you listen to his stories between the songs.
Happy birthday, JCM. I am not – I simply CAN’T be – the only person in the world waiting to hear how you were Born and Raised.