Yeah, but he's an amazing guitar player. That's what people say whenever John Mayer is held accountable for his pillow-soft songcraft, the dull sentimentality of his lyrics, or that cuckoo-racist interview he gave to Playboy in 2010.

Knowing how to caress a Fender Stratocaster should not absolve a man of such party fouls, so I make this admission through clenched teeth: John Mayer is an amazing guitar player.

It's hard to hear it on his records, where his over-compressed solos might zip past your ears, regardless of how sensitively they've been articulated. Strangely, you can hear it in stunning detail inside a cavernous arena, like Washington's Verizon Centre, where on Thursday evening Mayer repeatedly sent his most intimate gestures fluttering up toward the 400 level's cheapest seats. He knows how to play the guitar, but more importantly, he knows how to play an arena.

And he filled this one up despite the fact his seventh studio album, The Search for Everything, hasn't been released in its entirety. Instead, Mayer is rolling out the 12-track album in truncated four-song "waves", with the final wave scheduled to crash on April 14. He's also chosen a sweeping title for a songbook that, so far, chronicles his break-up with pop superstar Katy Perry over a series of sleek R&B toe-tappings.


Meantime, Mayer has kept busy on the interview circuit, still doing damage control seven years after casually dropping the n-word in an interview with Playboy during which he also referred to his libido as a "white supremacist" and compared his anatomy to David Duke. Since then, we've been left to wonder how, among other things, John Mayer's freaky brain makes such unfreaky music.

That doesn't mean it isn't mesmerising from time to time. Mayer played two paralysing solos - one during the louche strut of Vultures, another during a choppy acoustic rendition of 3x5. Both felt dizzyingly fast, breathtakingly delicate and entirely of Mayer's own invention.

But just as he artfully undersold his virtuosity on the guitar, he often oversold the wistfulness in his voice, deploying his trademark sigh - the one that always makes him sound as if he's using his dying breath to practise a new pickup line.

It sounded as icky as ever, but if you stretched your ears, you might have heard a more fundamental human desire, a man committed to propagating the species at any cost.