John Mayer, one-time self-proclaimed "recovering ego addict," will always be haunted by three things: his regrettable comments in a 2010 Playboy interview, his regrettable comments in a 2010 Rolling Stone interview, and "Your Body is a Wonderland." But before his star status got him into trouble, back when he was still allowed to smile on album covers and wear all the boyishly baggy clothes he wanted, he wrote what may very well be the best song of his career: "Covered in Rain."
On the surface, "Covered in Rain" — first heard in 10-minute guitar glory on Mayer's 2003 live release, Any Given Thursday — is an elegy for a love gone cold. Specifically, it's a city love: the one Mayer sings about with a gal named Lydia over a cute blues riff in 2001's "City Love." In that song, their whirlwind, cocktail-fueled romance blooms into stolen shirts and a strategically left-behind toothbrush and culminates with Mayer almost down on one knee in the Manhattan street at 2 a.m.
But by the sequel, "Covered in Rain," things have slowed down, BPM included. It's autumn. Now, they're splitting delivery and watching cable news instead of buzzing around downtown. She's been staying over a lot (probably too much, he admits). A ripping blues solo cuts through half of the song — the makings of Mayer's eventual re-arrival as a guitar hero — and by winter, she's gone. It's mutual, or least understood. The song's final moments are spent describing one vivid scene of loneliness: "Now I'm standing facing west / Tracing my fingers round a silhouette / I haven't gotten used to yet / But it's the brightest thing I've got / When I'm covered in rain."
For anyone who's ever experienced loss, romantic or otherwise, this is a poignant image: You're with someone, then you're not. It's a weird, nude vulnerability that takes a while to settle back into. And this breakup symbolism is clear enough until you begin to consider the timeline of the song's origin: captured for Any Given Thursday at a September 12, 2002 concert in Alabama, one year after the 9/11 attacks. Then the details emerge. Why is the world colder now, as the song's opening line declares? What would you see on CNN that'd change your mind about an evening out? What's missing from the sky in downtown Manhattan as you face west and look across the East River?
"Covered in Rain" is about a breakup, yes. But it's also about the fog that surrounded New York (and by extension, America) after 9/11. This is also where the song's title comes into play.
Mayer first sings the phrase "covered in rain" endearingly in "City Love" as a descriptor for Lydia, who shows up soaking wet and rom-com ready in "dinnertime shadowing." He lifts "rain" when he sings it, fashioning an emotional typhoon of young love. "And as her clothes spun, we spooned," Mayer continues, "and I knew I was through when I said 'I love you.'"
And then, taking the entire phrase for the breakup song's title, he flips "covered in rain" into a melancholy-soaked refrain. Mayer sings about "the brightest thing [he's] got," making three concrete feelings — the broken-horizon silhouette, Lydia's quiet gesture amid the "MISSING" posters lining the drugstore walls, the cable news-fueled agoraphobia — physical anchors in the song's intangible emotional fog. Twice, Mayer plucks his chords in a slow arpeggio, like steady raindrops. It's not a storm, but a steady trickle. From afar, a mist. A constant gray.
It's dark, I know. But then again — Mayer reminds us, subtly reminding an entire grieving nation — in the darkest times, even that can be its own strange kind of brightness.