* * 1/2
JOHN MAYER is 28 years old, and he's facing mortality. "Continuum" (in stores Sept. 12) has the musical gentility that's made him the favorite mellow love man of the text-messaging generation, but the lyrics tell another story. Our hero is "slow dancing in a burning room" with his soon-to-be-ex lady love; he's eyeing vultures outside his door. "Keep me where the light is!" he moans on the soul ranter "Gravity." He's in the throes of a serious reckoning.
That's not surprising. Jimi Hendrix, Mayer's idol, and a host of other rock legends were gone by 30. Mayer's facing that other inevitable death, of his viability as both a teen idol and a Next Big Thing. "Continuum" has him solidifying a style suitable for adult listening.
Mayer doesn't need to worry so much. His greatest asset is his natural restraint -- a grown man's gift. The best tracks on "Continuum" move as gently as a feather through their changes: "The Heart of Life" recalls the pastoral gentility of Paul McCartney's first solo album, while "Stop This Train" features an enchanting Lindsey Buckingham-style acoustic guitar run.
These laid-back ballads are Mayer's forte; when he gets more worked up, as on the politically minded first single "Waiting on the World to Change," or an overeager version of Hendrix's "Axis: Bold as Love," his mood tightens up unpleasantly.
A blues nut who's made acknowledging his elders a major priority -- he's guested with Chicago great Buddy Guy and toured with veteran sidemen Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino -- Mayer may feel that winsome reveries aren't dignified enough for a real man. But he's best when treading softly, finding the fluid heart of blue-eyed soul. If he keeps going in that direction, he'll be too smooth to die -- in the hearts of his admirers, anyway.
Focused effort avoids politics
* * 1/2
"THE original fire has died and gone but the riot inside moves on," Chris Cornell sings on the first single from Audioslave's third album (in stores Tuesday). This might be the group's way of saying that anyone still hoping for a return of Rage Against the Machine's political punch should retool those expectations.
Audioslave consists of three members of Rage, L.A.'s great agit-rock band, and Soundgarden singer Cornell, and while the musicians certainly didn't form a new band in order to do the same old thing, their departure from overtly political commentary is increasingly disappointing in a world that could desperately use some rock-fueled editorializing.
"Revelations" does take a couple of shots at warmongers, but most of the struggles being portrayed are internal. The album puts it across in more focused, less frilly fashion than its predecessor, "Out of Exile," mounting a rugged, soaring attack behind Tom Morello's guitar that evokes the blues-rock splendor of Paul Rodgers' late-'60s band Free.
It's not without its rewards, but with its pedigree, Audioslave should be doing more at this point than spinning its wheels.
Bouncing back with a vengeance
"A Public Affair" (Epic)
FRESH off her very public, if inevitable, divorce, Simpson steps right into ... an audition for the remake of "Xanadu"? She could do worse than try to become the new Olivia Newton-John. She could have tried to compete with Christina Aguilera's relatively convincing bid to be taken seriously -- a move that likely would have been laughably out of Simpson's, uh, depth.
Instead, she's doing the laughing -- underneath a mirror ball.
Sure, her roller-disco party is not just 30 years too late for the heyday but 10 years too late for the revival. Even the most "current" sounding track, "B.O.Y." (built on a Cars sample), could have been one of Madonna's early bids to be taken seriously. (And the giddy title track pretty much is early Madonna, unmistakably similar to "Holiday.")
Still, the pop froth is good pop froth. Nothing more, but nothing less, borrowed as it may be. And she's not completely avoiding references to her situation, from the dance-that-man-right-out-of-my-hair tone of the title song to the heartfelt-adjacent version of Patty Griffin's folk-country ballad "Let Him Fly" that closes the album.
Of course, it's all totally de-sexed. Her version of Dead or Alive's 1985 "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" -- dark and leering in the original -- sounds here as if it's just about dancing. She just can't do dark convincingly. Barely can do introspection convincingly. Anyway, she should save her introspection and darkness in case of a future, maybe inevitable, split from her manager-father.
Cuts like a knife -- without an edge
"Amar Es Combatir" (Warner Music Latina)
* * 1/2
MANA is hurting. Hurting real bad. Hurting from impossible love, unrequited love, fickle love, lost love, two-timing love. For Mexico's most successful rock quartet, love is a battle, as the title of its new album suggests.