In many ways, the sophomore release can be more important than the debut. It’s where acts will either continue with successes from the initial record, fail to recapture the magic, or redefine with growth and exploration. With Heavier Things, John Mayer turned away from the mostly straightforward pop-rock of Room For Squares to develop a more bluesy sound, demonstrating his skill and growth as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. He maintained his pop sensibilities but added extra layers of depth. The album’s easily accessible, but has the ability to transfix and force listeners to feel what he feels. There were successes earlier and successes later, but this record is certainly near the top of his studio output in terms of overall quality and lasting value.
One of my top five favorite albums is As/Is: Mountain View, CA – 7/16/04. It’s the only live release on my list, and over half of those songs come from Heavier Things. There’s definitely a correlation in play here. Between “Something’s Missing,” “Split Screen Sadness,” and “Home Life,” there’s an incredible amount of emotion put into this music, which comes across very well on the album and even better in a live setting. Sorrow and worry, particularly when counterbalanced with the hope and calm found in tracks like “Bigger Than My Body” and “Wheel,” are what Mayer was meant to sing. His guitar tones and phrasings only amplify these feelings, sometimes even surpassing the expressiveness of his voice. His melodic riffs and solos set the overall tone and are perhaps the most important element of the record.
In addition to being strong from a musical perspective, this record showed maturation in terms of lyrical content. Somehow, Mayer managed to write lines that made sense to me in 2003 and hit so much harder nearly a decade later. The end of the second verse of “New Deep” about looking at the stars? Come on, it’s just too true. “Something’s Missing” is a downtempo personal anthem, while “Daughters” draws subtly witty social commentary and “Split Screen Sadness” expresses everything felt by anyone experiencing a long-distance relationship or breakup. As the final moments of “Wheel” play out, the acapella statement of the line “I believe that my life’s gonna see the love I give returned to me” is particularly moving and remains for a long time, at once a promise to live passionately and an expectation that everything will be alright. It closes an album full of worry on the perfect note of calm and contentedness.
Albums like this aren’t written every day, and they can’t ever truly be recreated, nor should they be. One of the best things about John Mayer’s records is that none of them sound quite like any other. Heavier Things lives up to its name. It moves past earlier releases to focus on topics that are universally real. From the opening lines of “Clarity” to the final moments of “Wheel,” it’s clear that this is the point in his career that Mayer went from being any number of pop acts to becoming a seriously respectable musician. The record covers a variety of tempos, emotions, and textures, and accomplishes each adeptly. There’s still a lot that’s undeniably “pop” about this album, but it’s pop that cares. It’s not only there to sell, but to feel, to make the listener feel, and that’s what makes all the difference.