John Mayer gets a lot of shit for being John Mayer; there’s a laundry list to sift through if you have some spare time. Some criticism is justified (“Your Body is a Wonderland,” his Esquire column, that Playboy interview), and some isn’t (Dave Matthews rip-off, wanna-be Clapton, big-headed Artist with Something To Say). Speaking of that last one, 2006’s Continuum is easily his best album and had his sharpest writing as both artist and pop star, in addition to being his most varied work.

The Search for Everything is the singer-songwriter’s most self-aware record to date. Mayer, in fact, doesn’t often get enough credit for being conscious of how he’s seen. While Search isn’t solely about his breakup with Katy Perry, it isn’t explicit even when it does touch upon that topic. To his credit, Mayer uses songs like “Still Feel Like Your Man” and “Moving On and Getting Over” avoids using names, and in doing so, not only do his lyrics avoid an acerbic or malicious feel, the theme of loss becomes universal: “And the one I love the most just said to me/ A broken heart is all I’ll ever be”. Additionally, the record doesn’t become another piece of tabloid fodder by dating it to one period (or tying it to one name).

As on previous releases, Mayer fares better here as a guitarist than as a lyricist. While the lyrics may be of a higher quality than he typically offers, there are still clunkers to be found (“You be the DJ, I’ll be the driver/ You put your feet up in the getaway car” and “Don’t you know my love is true/ ‘Perdon’ and ‘lo siento,” see, I learned those words for you”). The strongest lyrics are found on the record’s most tender song. Album closer “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” finds Mayer considering the permanence of a former love (“Parts of me were made by you/ And planets keep their distance, too/ The moon’s got a grip on the sea”) before soberly promising to keep a respectful distance (“And when the pastor asks the pews/ For reasons he can’t marry you/ I’ll keep my word in my seat”).

Musically, Search shares Continuum’s populist eclecticism, but the similarity extends beyond that. Continuum‘s earnest “Dreaming with a Broken Heart” has a cousin in the anthemic, piano-led “Changing” with its tidy solo. Likewise, Continuum’s funky, blue-eyed soul of “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” has a mate in the excellent “Moving On and Getting Over.” And Mayer’s previous country-rock dabbling of “The Heart of Life” and “Stop This Train” is mirrored in the effortless fun of “Roll It on Home” and the clever arrangement of “In the Blood”.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Mayer discussed the album’s title, saying that it explained his whole career and “all these different things that I’ve done” as well as “sum[med] up the music” and his curiosity. While The Search for Everything isn’t that, it is a search nonetheless. It makes no grand conclusions about heartache and offers little in the way of answers for those who can relate. For better or worse, Search is an egalitarian pop-rock record, and a superb one at that. As to whether it’s superior to Continuum, that’s for time to decide. The fact that it can be legitimately discussed, though, is proof enough of its quality.

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