One of the first songs John Mayer shared from his new album, The Search For Everything, is called “Moving On And Getting Over.” Perhaps not coincidentally, if we are to judge by Mayer’s recent New York Times interview, that’s also the theme of the album’s promotional campaign. In the interview, Mayer depicts his comments to Playboy in 2010 and Rolling Stone in 2012 — in which he described Jessica Simpson as “sexual napalm,” compared his penis to white supremacist David Duke, and used the N-word among other outrageous pullquotes — as part of a semi-conscious self-sabotage campaign, a way to distance himself from the limelight and reboot his career. Now he wants back into the pop mainstream, and The Search For Everything (plus its apologetic press tour) is supposed to be his ticket.
“I’m a young guy,” Mayer told the NYT. “I like girls. I want girls to like me. I want to make music and be thought of as attractive. I was finally ready to re-enter that world and grow back into it.” This, apparently, was his way of saying he wanted to make pop music again. He clarified by comparing himself to George Clooney, “a guy who can make art house films and then just decide that he’s going to be in a blockbuster.” And then he revealed in unambiguous terms his ambition to get back into the hit-making business: “It’s a choice to write pop songs, just like it’s a choice to write blues songs or folk songs. Let’s write the big ones that we are capable of writing.”
Although he lived in Montana for a while, Mayer hasn’t exactly spent this decade in seclusion. He released a pair of rootsy albums, 2012’s Born And Raised and 2013’s Paradise Valley, both of which sold well. He collaborated with Barbra Streisand and Frank Ocean and Katy Perry, the last of whom he dated to the paparazzi’s delight. He appeared on TV occasionally: with Ocean on SNL in 2012, at the Grammys in 2015, guest-hosting three episodes of The Late Late Show before James Corden took it over. He has become a go-to guitarist for celebs in need of some slick blues showmanship. Perhaps most famously, he toured with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead under the name Dead & Company, a profitable pursuit that shows no signs of slowing down even as Mayer’s solo career ramps back up. He’s been literally and figuratively all over the map — everywhere except the radio, where he used to be a mainstay.
Mayer was actually less of a top 40 phenom than you may remember; according to Billboard, his only single to ever crack the top 10 at pop radio was 2002 breakthrough “No Such Thing,” which peaked at #8, and he’s never had a top-10 hit on Billboard’s all-encompassing singles chart, the Hot 100, where he topped out at #12 with 2008’s “Say.” But he wrecked shop on the Adult Pop Songs chart, which tracks “Adult Top 40″ stations, aka “top 40 for people over 25” — a pop format that subs out edgier current hits in favor of familiar tracks from recent decades. Mayer landed 11 songs in that chart’s top 10 during the stretch from 2002-2010 but hasn’t returned since.
Even if Mayer never exactly ruled pop radio, it’s easy to see why he believes now is the right time to make advances at the top 40. Pop circa now is peppered with his descendants, younger white guys who either work out of or build upon his folksy, bluesy singer-songwriter template. Most directly, there is Shawn Mendes, the teenage Canadian heartthrob who openly reveres Mayer and whose recent #1 album Illuminate was a full-fledged embrace of Mayer’s post-Clapton adult contemporary ethos. Mayer has been a mentor figure for Mendes and welcomed him on stage to perform at a recent tour stop. And with his disciple landing hit after hit at pop radio, it makes sense that Mayer would want a piece of that action.
There is also Ed Sheeran, the English singer-songwriter who has gone nuclear using a version of the Mayer playbook. Sheeran is no Mayer clone. He owes much more to early Mayer contemporaries such as Jason Mraz (for bringing corny white-guy hip-hop into acoustic pop mainstream) and Howie Day (for helping popularize looping pedals as a means to a one-man live show). But they’ve both performed together on multiple occasions, and Sheeran’s biggest hit until recently, the soul slow dance “Thinking Out Loud,” borrows as much from Mayer’s aesthetic as it does from Marvin Gaye. His recent blockbuster ÷ is padded out with such songs, including one with a guitar solo by Mayer. And he occupies a place Mayer used to own within pop culture: that undoubtedly talented but annoyingly popular troubadour who dates famous women, gives marvelously cocky interviews, and is relentlessly clowned by music geeks of discerning taste.
Mayer wouldn’t always have fit so naturally into the framework of the modern mainstream. He dipped out right around the time when EDM and Mumford-folk were on the rise, and subsequent movements such as DJ Mustard-style hip-hop minimalism, maximalist ’80s pop revivalism, and zonked-out tropical house were not exactly congruent to his skill set. The era of Pharrell-mania would have been, at best, an awkward match for him. Although pop might not exactly be molded in Mayer’s image these days, he at least has an obvious lane to slide back into.
In part, he is attempting that slide by cowing to certain distinctly modern promotional tactics. For instance, Mayer released two-thirds of The Search For Everything early in a pair of EPs called Wave One and Wave Two, a maneuver increasingly common among artists looking to get a foothold in the pop market — it’s just that usually those artists are young strivers like Bebe Rexha and not household names. He also made a music video Angel Olsen might describe as “gif-rich,” in which Mayer dances with pandas at a “disco dojo” in what seems like some kind of Japanese mafia situation:
The “Still Feel Like Your Man” visuals seem more like a shameless bid for virality than any of Mayer’s new songs, none of which play like craven gestures to the middle. These are pop songs of a sort, hooky and compulsively playable. But they’re also rich explorations of the folk, soul, and blues that have always informed Mayer’s music, blessed by memorable lyrics and gorgeous arrangements. The eight tracks released so far comprise some of the best music of his career. You might find yourself enjoying it even if, like me, you’ve always vacillated between disdain and begrudging respect for Mayer.
“Still Feel Like Your Man” is as good an example as any: throwback loverman soul that glides and grooves with an effortlessness that belies its sophistication. “Moving On And Getting Over” treads similar ground similarly well. The goofily titled “Emoji Of A Wave” is a folk-rock ballad overflowing with lovely finger-plucked guitar work and delicate strings, while whistling ballad “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” does its damage on piano. Country rambler “Roll It On Home” could almost pass for Wilco; lead single “Love On The Weekend” is a twilight ’80s heartland rocker that recalls recent indie favorites the War On Drugs.
Many of these songs are about Mayer’s breakup with Perry; as he told the NYT, “Who else would I be thinking about?” And as much as they’re geared at winning back a pop audience, they often seem more concerned with winning back a pop star. On “Still Feel Like Your Man,” he assures her that he keeps her shampoo in the shower in case she wants to sleep over. “Changing” is built around this chorus: “I met me someone changing/ We had some fun changing/ Sometimes I wonder if she’ll be the one/ When I am done changing.” There’s more where that came from. Who knows whether any of it will convince Mayer’s ex to give him another chance, but it may well convince the rest of the world.
Billboard reports that Drake’s More Life accumulated 225,000 equivalent units last week. That’s a 55 percent drop from the previous week’s 505,000 tally, but it’s still plenty good enough to claim a second week at #1. 169,000 of the new total are streaming equivalent units (because Drake is the king of streaming) plus 43,000 in album sales and 13,000 from accumulated track sales.
At #2 is Ed Sheeran’s ÷, holding strong with 98,000 units in its fourth week. Then comes the week’s highest debut: Trey Songz’s Tremaine at #3 with 65,000 units/45,000 sales. The Beauty And The Beast soundtrack is at #4 with 64,000, while Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct shoots back up from #19 to #5 with 50,000, again due to a promotion bundling album sales with concert tickets. The bottom half of the top 10: Bruno Mars, Moana, Rick Ross, Future, and the Weeknd.
Over on the Hot 100, Ed Sheeran reigns for a 10th nonconsecutive week with “Shape Of You,” which makes it one of only 34 songs to ever lead for double-digit weeks, per Billboard. That means “Shape Of You” has now matched Drake’s run with “One Dance” and is rapidly approaching the 12 weeks the Chainsmokers and Halsey spent on top with “Closer” last summer.
After Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” at #2 comes the Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This,” rising to a new peak at #3 to match “Don’t Let Me Down” as the Chainsmokers’ second-biggest hit. That, along with “Paris” at #9, ties the Chainsmokers with Ace Of Base for third on the list of most consecutive weeks in the top 10. Their 48 weeks are second only to Drake (51) and Katy Perry (69).
More new peaks: The Weeknd and Daft Punk’s “I Feel It Coming” is up to #4, while Kyle and Lil Yachty’s “iSpy” jumps to #5, remaining Kyle’s highest-charting song and tying Yachty’s previous best placement (“Broccoli” peaked at #5). At 6-8 are Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad And Boujee,” Zayn and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker),” and Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision.” And rounding out the top 10 is Drake’s “Passionfruit.”
Halsey – “Now Or Never”
Set aside all the pageantry of the video and just listen to Halsey’s first big post-“Closer” gesture as a song. It’s a great one — a dark, stylish, low-key banger that should keep her on the radio long after her Chainsmokers association melts away.
Cheat Codes – “No Promises” (Feat. Demi Lovato)
Lovato’s past work has erred on the side of pop-rock, but she sounds great in this post-“Closer” (everything’s post-“Closer,” apparently) collaboration with the production team Cheat Codes.
Hey Violet – “Break My Heart”
You will be hearing much more about this band in the coming months. They are on track for world domination because they figured out how to weave EDM elements into Paramore-style pop-rock. On “Break My Heart,” it really, really works.
will.i.am – “Fiyah”
Maybe I’m just feeling generous this morning, but this seems like the least annoying will.i.am song in recent memory. Not sure exactly how it’s an “appreciation of British culture,” though; for an actual appreciation of British culture, try More Life.
B.o.B – “Lit” (Feat. T.I. & Ty Dolla $ign)
Just because someone believes the Earth is flat doesn’t mean they can’t make good music.
NEWS IN BRIEF
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Cash me on the green, how bow dah? pic.twitter.com/Bi1kops1bd
— Kenny G (@kennyg) April 4, 2017