This post was inspired by (read: ripped off from) The AV Club, a website that discusses and reviews pop culture/media (if you aren’t on their stuff, they have loads of great reads on new and old media, I highly recommend it). They have a regular feature called Pop Culture Q&A, where they throw a question out and have staff and readers discuss. I’m going to take my favorite Q&A’s and answer them in long form here. So my first Q&A I’m choosing is this:
- What album(s) have you loved the longest?
I had one album that leaped into my head right away, and as I let this question simmer in my brain, it might result in other posts answering it again. But for now, we’ll start with John Mayer’s Room For Squares. I got a hold of this album at exactly the right time, and I feel as though I was exactly the demographic/listener JM was trying to reach with his debut record (although, in terms of reaching an audience, isn’t it the desired output of most pop culture products that every audience member who embraces the work will think it was created for just them?). I was 15 or 16 when I first started listening to this album, and I think Your Body Is A Wonderland was just on the radio. JM was really starting to gain some major traction in recognition, he was landing singles on chick flick soundtracks, No Such Thing had already been a pretty big hit and YBIAW was going to bust the floodgates open.
But when I first heard the album in its entirety, I heard something I hadn’t heard elsewhere: perfectly crafted pop songs with just a hint of a bluesy thread throughout, with lyrics I didn’t have to work to interpret. These were songs that were immediately accessible; lyrically, nearly every song had at least a line or two (usually more) that I felt I had lived, and musically, I couldn’t pin it down at the time, but something sounded different about JM’s music. It was very poppy but it felt somehow better than the rest of the acoustic singer-songwriters around the same time. So not only was there a familiarity to it, the mysterious element of an unfamiliar sound allowed me to look at it with some unknown reverence (as backward as this may seem, I’d attribute Room For Squares for completely blasting my musical worldview wide open, with my musical knowledge/tastes growing exponentially after this album).
Lyrically, JM doesn’t leave much to the imagination, and my hormonal 16-year-old brain connected so much to that sort of unambiguous lyricism. I didn’t want to interpret, I wanted someone to put my feelings into words I understood. My Stupid Mouth sums up this idea better than any other song. “My stupid mouth has got me in trouble, I said too much again to a date over dinner yesterday…” Has a 16-year-old boy ever existed that hasn’t felt like this? He paints word pictures that at the time I thought were revolutionary, “I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shakers.” In my defense, I was young. I didn’t know lots of music. I listen to this now and while the nostalgia keeps me interested in it, but boy oh boy is this album lyrically heavy-handed. Yes, there are moments of subtletly that point toward his eventual evolution as a lyricist and songwriter, but for the most part, it gets laid on pretty thick throughout this whole thing. But that’s what I needed to hear in the middle of high school. I didn’t know who I was, what I liked, who I liked, what I wanted to become. In your 20s, your life is jam-packed full of unknowns, much more so than your teens, but in your teens, you’re beginning to just start to realize that the unknowns even exist, and as you age, they seem to pile on at an exponential rate. So this lyrical heavy-handedness, getting slapped in the face by the message or the metaphor, I spoke to me. I needed it and this album delivered it.
Musically, Room For Squares gave me something I hadn’t heard so distilled before. It was pure pop, simple acoustic hooks that played well on the radio and would get the maximum number of ears interested. But the more I listened to it, the more I heard a weird element I hadn’t heard elsewhere, at least in pop music. The foundation of City Love, for example, is certainly no 12-bar blues, but it had this rootsy quality to it that sounded hidden by its overly produced pop feel. It took months of listening to this album for me to start to aurally strip away the production values and hear the music underneath. City Love has a fantastic blues foundation, both in the lead and rhythm guitar parts. Neon has some of the most intricate acoustic skill I had ever heard. JM was able to turn his guitar into not only a melody producer but also a rhythmic base (this skill only continued to evolve as his music grew up). 3×5 was such a musically layered song that months would go by and I’d all of a sudden hear a new electric guitar track I hadn’t before. And again, the production is heavy-handed; listening to it now, it’s a pretty cheesy record. But it was the perfect introduction to what I would eventually get into; it so gently and perfectly led me down roads into new kinds of music I hadn’t heard before.
My Stupid Mouth took me to Paul Simon’s Hearts And Bones. 83 took me to The Police’s Synchronicity. Following JM further took me to Clapton’s Pilgrim, SRV’s Texas Flood, Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Ben Folds’ Whatever And Ever Amen, Martin Sexton’s Black Sheep, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A., Common’s Be, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and each of these albums led me to five new albums themselves, and so on. It’s safe to say that JM’s acoustic-pop debut was the gateway drug that got me out of acoustic-pop and into the wildly diverse universe of music from previous generations.
I listen to this album now and can recognize it for what it is, while still enjoying the nostalgia of being in high school. It’s certainly not perfect (“bubble gum tongue…”) but it has moments that could hardly be improved, even 12 years on (3×5). So thanks to JM for writing this one. I’ll probably be listening to it forever.