There’s no real rhyme or reason for the albums that find you when you’re 20, but they get you in every way. You stay up late with them. They’re in your car and in your ear all time time. At 30, you can play the role of revisionist and pretend that the love affair didn’t occur (or that it didn’t change you) when it comes to albums that haven’t aged well, but the stain doesn’t fade, and you’ll still feel pangs when you hear your old friend wailing from underneath a pile of more thoughtfully curated music. Don’t deny it. I can’t. Own it and recall what those albums say about you now and what they said about you then.
I found John Mayer’s Room for Squares (which just turned 15) a few months after its debut when I was 20. I remember eagerly tearing off the plastic, opening the liner notes, and sitting in awe as the lyrics penetrated me while I sat in the breakroom of my soul-siphoning retail job during lunch. At last, I no doubt thought, I had discovered an album and an artist who got my struggles as, at that point, a mostly struggle-free middle-class twenty-something going through what John Mayer in “Why Georgia Why” would tell me was a “quarter-life crisis.”
In reality, though, I was fine and a bit premature in wondering “about the outcome of a still verdictless life.” See, if you squint and stare long enough in the mirror, you can get pants-sh*ttingly scared thinking about the quick slippage of time and the weight of expectations when you’re 20. So much so, that you can psych yourself out of experiencing the joy that comes from organically finding a direction and embracing twenties slackerism for a hot minute or two.
According to Mayer’s “83,” life’s mounting complexities (such as being “another social casualty” on a date in “My Stupid Mouth,” or not understanding the allure of New York City until you meet an artsy girlfriend in “City Love,” I suppose) are so severe and angst-inducing that they require one to be wistful about the ease of childhood. In the song, Mayer (who was 23 when Room for Squares was recorded and released) wishes he was “six again” and says he wants things to be more like they were “at the start” of him. But who would trade the expanse of young adulthood for the caged-rat existence of childhood where you’re stuck in the backseat, eat what people tell you to, sleep when they tell you to, and have to ask for permission when you want to sh*t? Who would place more years between themselves and the ability to find other “bubble-gum tongued” people with whom to mack on as foretold in “Your Body Is a Wonderland?” No one. Mayer’s precocious nostalgia fails the legitimacy test upon reflection.
In the early 2000s, at the dawn of the emotive pop micro-era, Mayer eagerly aimed to split the difference between early ’90s grunge and late ’90s bubblegum pop by crafting over-earnest whisper songs about feelings, growing pains, the maddening pursuit of love, and being true to oneself. At the time, it was homemade soup — satisfying, savory, and comforting — but to hear it now with less welcoming ears, it sounds like hot bro-pop blather aching to sound deep. Still, I was a generic guy with generic troubles and I bought in. I also needed a theme song. And Mayer’s breakout hit, “No Such Thing,” which was the first single off of Room for Squares, was the ideal generic theme song for me.