Say this for John Mayer: He’s a master of restraint. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter — guitar wizard is a scientifically perfect Adult Alternative star — handsome, amiable, with a gift for supple, radio-friendly pop-rock melodies and the kind of crisp, unfussy arrangements that make a brunchtime mimosa go down nice and smooth. It’s not easy to be as reined in as Mayer; many musicians with his all-star-level guitar skills will go reeling off into jam-band indulgence at the least opportunity, but Mayer always plays understated, lacing his catchy songs with crystalline blues licks and subtle jazz-style filigree. It’s all very well-intentioned and refined — but are those qualities we really want from a pop star in 2006?
His self-produced third album, Continuum, is a John Mayer record par excellence: taut, melodic, well sung, impeccably played…and deadly dull. The touchstones are Sting, along with latter-day Eric Clapton and the ’70s blue-eyed soul of the Doobie Brothers and Boz Scaggs. Sometimes the songs work. ”Belief” is an exquisite ballad powered by a murmuring six-note guitar figure. And surprising, jazz-inflected chord changes bring freshness to genre exercises like the soul ballad ”Gravity.” Mayer made his name with love songs like ”Your Body Is a Wonderland,” but on Continuum his concerns are more global. Several songs allude to the war in Iraq; ”Waiting on the World to Change,” with a melody lifted straight out of Curtis Mayfield’s classic civil rights rallying cry, ”People Get Ready,” carries an incisive protest message, defending his generation against the charge of political apathy, and railing against the Bush administration and the corporate media. ”When they own the information/They can bend it all they want,” he sings.
But Mayer can be insipid. In the folksy nocturne ”The Heart of Life,” Mayer intones as if he’s delivering profound insights, but his words land with a thud: ”I know the heart of life is good.” The tunes are shapely throughout Continuum, and the musicianship is elegant and virtuosic — but in song after song, the music’s low-key loveliness dissipates into a sleep-inducing soft-rock haze. Mayer’s talent is beyond dispute. If only he weren’t so damn classy.