Room For Squares
Sony Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/24/2003
This album makes me cranky.
I will attempt to explain the above statement, but make no promises. Sometimes music is like a Rorschach test; your reaction simply is what it is.
It's not that John Mayer's music offends; to the contrary, it's so inoffensive as to verge on bland. It's not that Room For Squares isn't well-crafted; to the contrary, at times it's artful to the point where you begin to question whether there's any there there. (I told you this wasn't going to be easy…)
Mayer's approach is in fact the very epitome of modern, earnest, singer-songwriter folk-pop, sort of a cross between Jewel and a solo Dave Matthews. Indeed, ever since the first hit single "No Such Thing" ("I wanna run through the halls of my high school / etc.") came out, the Matthews comparisons have fallen like rain. Rightfully so, for two reasons. One is that the album was produced by former Matthews engineer and producer John Alagia. The other is that Mayer sings in a breathy, slightly nasal coo that's undeniably similar to Matthews' typical approach to ballads. Except Mayer sings that way ALL THE TIME.
The emergence of second single (and -- gulp -- Grammy winner) "Your Body Is A Wonderland" has only stoked the fires of comparison, inasmuch as it amounts to little more than a PG-13 rewrite of Matthews' steamy ballad "Crash Into Me." Don't get me wrong; it's a pretty song, with some nice turns of phrase to be found along the way. But hearing Mayer perform it right in front of a truly stellar James Taylor performance -- and then, God help us, beat Taylor out for a Grammy -- is flat-out ridiculous.
But I digress. When Mayer does get away from the obvious Matthews-isms, his strong suit quickly becomes clear -- he has a real gift for self-effacing, soul-searching folk songs. "Why Georgia" and "My Stupid Mouth" are the best examples and the strongest cuts here, wry self-examinations anchored by Mayer's very solid, rhythmic acoustic guitar.
At the same time, "Why Georgia" goes a long way for me toward pinpointing the source of the problem: Alagia's homogenized, electrified folk-pop production. The song starts out beautifully with just Mayer and his acoustic, before an entirely unnecessary electric guitar and rhythm section barge in and overpower him. This occurs again and again throughout the album, as Alagia's squeaky-clean, overly-textured pop arrangements undermine otherwise deserving lyrics like "83." The only place where the production actually seems like an asset is on the ringing power-pop track (with the ironic ballad-ish title) "Love Song For No One."
The end result of this collision of styles is an album that wants very badly to be genuine, but ends up, thanks to the overly slick production, often feeling manufactured to the point of insincerity. Considering that the whole appeal of singer-songwriter folk-pop is its intimacy and sincerity, it's a pretty deadly flaw. Like the easily dazzled Grammy voters, I believe John Mayer has real talent and potential, but what he and his over-reaching producer have done with it here just doesn't work for me.
Squandered potential. Yep, that's just the kind of thing that makes me cranky.