John Mayer is the most unfortunate type of romantic: he’s the self-destructive type, the kind of guy who lectures everyone on the virtues of true love and then, after a breakup, goes on a bender during which he’ll keep yelling about how his only allegiance is to the girls on his bookmarked porn. Rinse, repeat. The fascinating thing about a John Mayer show is that in the course of one night, one might see that cycle repeat itself various times as he works through his parallel desires to both find love and convince himself he’ll be fine without it. He always starts out as a romantic, though, which is why girls (and their mothers) pay Madison Square Garden prices in order to hear him lament his loneliness — as I once eagerly watched him do at fourteen, and fifteen and once again this past Friday night.
Before even entering the arena, it became clear that Mayer’s fanbase had not aged with him. This was not a show for the now-twentysomethings who may have cherished Room for Squares in late 2001, but for the junior-high girls who conveniently downloaded it on iTunes when its icon popped up next to Continuum. For maybe the first time in my life, I was at a show where “I hope he plays the early stuff” felt as embarrassing as it did thrilling. I have about as little control over my teenage nostalgia as I did over which albums end up shaping those awkward years, and my fate had been sealed when I scratched my copy of Room for Squares to the point that I still expect “No Such Thing” to skip at the twenty-three second mark whenever I hear it.
Mayer’s influence on my young heart, however, didn’t stop me from actually laughing as the show’s theatrics began to unfold. Of course, the Grammys and the tabloids had inflated his ego as the decade progressed, but I still wasn’t expecting the giant black and white image of his torso that was being projected onto a tall gauzy curtain around the stage; his tattoo sleeves reaching higher than the statue of liberty. When the man — not the projection — finally came out, I remembered that in the years since I saw Mayer play Irving Plaza, he had stopped wearing shirts with sleeves and using an acoustic guitar. It was like watching an old friend finally play out the larger than life fantasy he’d imagined in his air guitar days in both admiration and horror.
At first, he seemed surprisingly quiet, running through his last two albums, Continuum and Battle Studies, quickly and with little patter. But eventually, the dueling impulses of a cocky romantic came out, battling for the spotlight. “Is anyone out there perfectly lonely?” he asked, championing his ode to freedom and letting us all know that he was doing just fine alone, thank you very much. Not much later, however, he launched into a sweet monologue about the plague of lovelessness, urging everyone to find company before they spiraled into the path of anger and hate that results from being alone. Then, a self-aware intro to “Half of My Heart,” declaring that he hopes to look back on the time when he “only used half of my dumb heart” as a short phase in the encyclopedia of his life.
Back when Mayer sang mostly about imaginary relationships or daydreams about future scenarios, the songs were brighter and it was easier to tap into the aspirations of the brokenhearted yet hopeful singer. As he played his latest songs on Friday, however, it was clear that Battle Studies is Mayer’s most obvious “I love you, but fuck you” album, but that the post-Battle Studies Mayer is leaning back towards the optimistic spirit. He may have opened his encore with “Who Says,” a somewhat depressing song about getting stoned by himself and not remembering your face, but closed with the last lines of “Gravity”: “Come on, keep me where the light is.”
To anyone who read the Playboy interview and quickly labeled him as a douche bag and nothing more: as you can see, Mayer’s back-and-forth between an asshole and a romeo isn’t an act, but a deeply-ingrained battle between a desire for acceptance and a reflex that causes him to alienate people before they have a chance to reject him. One of the most misunderstood aspects of Mayer’s personality is his obsession with being “well-liked,” a quality he shares with most of the human race but fails at in front of cameras and tape-recorders, leading him to cover up his screw-ups with both heartfelt apologies and self-sabotaging acts of preemptive protection — sometimes simultaneously.
It’s a pity that the quality of his albums has deteriorated since his debut (we’ll just have to agree to disagree, Grammy committee), and that the latter records made up the majority of his set list on Friday. In my view, his songs were never as good as on his initial EP and first album — but almost as a consolation prize, the banter on Friday night showed glimmers of that early John Mayer, the forward-looking romantic atoning for his stupid mouth, ready to get back on track. I can’t really know whether this is a natural part of the cycle, one that’s taken longer for him to get out of, or an exaggerated fallout from the Playboy interview. But either way, it seems as though his latest works and his most recent public disasters might just signal a return to form.