John Mayer is all grown up. Yes, I realize this is a ridiculous thing to say about a 34-year-old man. But it’s very much true. And it’s within the walls of his latest 12 track record where we can really see this maturity blossom. Back in 2010, the argument could easily be made that John Mayer was a womanizing douchebag who put out amazing records and ripping guitar licks. In a Playboy interview, Mayer dropped sexist and racist remarks that landed him in hot water and led to a self-imposed exile to the aesthetically barren lands of Montana. Fast forward two years and we stumble upon a calm, reserved, and ultimately manly John Mayer. The kid has come a long way. Finally realizing it’s better to speak from your heart than your mouth, Mayer -who recently was diagnosed with a granuloma that forced him to go months without speaking and cancel his upcoming tour- put out the well woven masterpiece Born and Raised. Fortunately for John Mayer, the granuloma leaves him virtually speechless. So instead of running any risk of putting his own foot in his mouth, he can merely sit back and let his legend grew before him. Maybe this granuloma happened at exactly the right time. Perhaps it’s best that Mayer for once keeps the sound bytes strictly related to his music.
As he did with Continuum, John Mayer has once again raised the bar for himself by changing his musical style with complete disregard for critics. Whereas Continuum was a switch from the pop culture to a heavy blues laden album, Born and Raised is a mixture of country twang, folk contemporary, and classic rock. It’s honestly a breath of fresh air from the man who once sang about candy lips and wonderland bodies. Mayer’s complex ear for music has him vying for the folk torch passed on by others such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Joni Mitchell. Not only is the sound purer, thicker, and far reaching compared to his previous works, the lyrics and arrangements show a man who settled down and became comfortable in his new folk enterprise. Simple it is not, but too over the top it is also not. The balance of pacing yourself and expressing yourself is met flawlessly.
The album starts off with a knockout punch on the deliciously smooth track Queen of California. It’s Mayer’s declaration that he’s “headed out west with my headphones on” and he leaves his childish ways behind. The music and vocals on this track are really clean. I mean, like, really, really clean. Especially for John Mayer, who is often criticized for doing things vocally he has no business doing. Giving nods to the 1970′s, Queen of California is a bit of modern nostalgia that leaves a sweet taste in the listener’s mouth. This one will remind the listener of a classic Eagles song. Right from the get go, you understand that John Mayer is trying to be taken seriously. And you offer him the fullest attention of your ears.
Track two, the strumming, high wire ballad called The Age of Worry, is a surprising song from Mayer. It has the air of an Irish drinking song that one might hear the patrons of a smoky bar bellowing out after they’ve had one too many. Almost at once, there’s an air of hope offered to you. A song about hard times and about saying “To hell with it.” The thing to be noted on this track is Mayer’s vocals which range all over the board, but in no way inaccurate. He finds his comfort zone and treats us to a very well balanced guitar melody. The opening riff is amazing and will probably give various YouTube users trouble as they try to learn it and then teach it on some mediocre tutorial.
The third song, and Mayer’s first official single from the album, is a song of redemption. Somewhere hidden in its core, Shadow Days has an open-ended apology to every girl that Mayer has ever left heartbroken. But more importantly, the apology extends to Mayer himself, as he seems determined to own up to his actions and tell himself it’s okay to move on. Mayer has always been good at lyrically complex songs that tug at the heartstrings. The difference on Born and Raised is that nothing seems forced. It’s genuine and every note is sincere. Instead of saying it all for the people’s sake, he is saying it for his own sake and peace of mind. Finally, we see Mayer stop saying “What do you want from me?” and instead saying “This is who I am, take it or leave it.” With Shadow Days, Mayer shows us he has come a long way from the troubled boy who caused a media firestorm. He is a good man, and he does have a good heart. But maybe he did just go through a rough time and a bad start. And now he is paying his penance.
Speak For Me, the album’s fourth track, embodies all the things we love about John Mayer. It stings us a bit at first, as the sorrow in Mayer’s voice is unmistakable. He sings, “I don’t want a world of broken things. You can tell that something isn’t right when all your heroes are in black and white.” It’s a reminiscing track that reaches back to a better day. But Mayer, clearly frustrated with the way of the world, seems to find himself speechless. He is asking for someone else to take his voice and say what he feels he can’t. For those who hear Speak For Me, though, it’s apparent that Mayer doesn’t need anybody to speak for him. He can do that just fine all by himself. A simple drum tap and a swarming guitar (oh, the wonderful things he can do with a six string) lend subtleness to Mayer’s tragically beautiful words.
The fifth track, and one of my personal favorites, is Something Like Olivia. If ever Mayer was honing his inner Jimi Hendrix, it is on this track. Think Gypsy Eyes, but with more style and composure. This track is bubbly, but very disciplined. The musical accompaniment is superb. In the background, you can hear a very high pitched organ and rhythm guitar. And the backing vocals (Mayer, singing behind himself in a much higher voice) as well as the female gospel-like harmony make you want to smile and nod your head along to the beat. The lyrics are simple, and yet they powerfully convey a woman of a beauty; one that Mayer can’t have, but would like a similar replacement for the time being. Rumors persist that this track is about celebrity hottie Olivia Wilde, but that is merely speculation. Mayer on his A-game for sure, either way.
On Born and Raised, the album’s sixth title track, John Mayer hones in his best Bob Dylan imitation. For the first time in his career, Mayer adds the harmonica to his musical repertoire. His vocal comes through sorrowful and thick; it stands in the foreground and eclipses the sun. And in that bittersweet rasp, you can visualize John Mayer sitting around with an old dusty shoebox and sorting through old photographs. The music is nothing outstanding, however the harmonica makes you wince at the pain in Mayer’s voice. There’s something about a harmonica on a John Mayer track that just… fits. And you question why he never used it prior. This song is an instant classic that long time fans and new listeners will adore. Again, we travel back to the reminiscent days of classic folk music. With Born and Raised -the album AND this song- Mayer stakes his claim for legitimacy. And we never doubt it for a second.
Mayer often invents new styles and methods to picking his guitar. And there’s a reason for that. He’s a damn skilled musician. But on the seventh track, If I Ever Get Around To Living, we discover that Mayer is more than a guitar player. He is a musical arranger and a phenomenal composer. And lest it fail to be mentioned, Mayer has some chops. He reaches a new peak of high falsetto on this track. Lyrically he’s running on all cylinders. And of course, the guitar playing. A fully threaded, no frill track that is all the things you love about good music. More of this, please.
Occasionally, Mayer quips that he was really pissed about the studio releasing Daughters as a radio single. He feared being stymied as “that” guy. The one that does the cheesy panty dropping love ballads. On Love Is A Verb, Mayer seems comfortable to be that crooning, Frank Sinatra type. In fact, he has since traded in his complaints for fathers and mothers, and started speaking directly to the girl. Telling her, “You gotta show, show, show me, that love is a verb.” He will always be able to tug the heart strings, and Love Is A Verb is another classic example of why there will always be screaming teenagers at John Mayer shows. It’s a short track, but one full of bite.
The next song is probably my favorite not only of this album, but of Mayer’s entire career. It’s called Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967. At first you don’t understand what is going on or why. It took a couple of listens for me to grasp what Mayer was trying to connect with. Much in the same way that Don McLean sang about the death of music in his timeless American Pie; much in the same way that Bob Dylan sang about tumultuous times and government failures in Subterranean Homesick Blues; in that same respect, John Mayer has captured the timeless American saga in his song about a simple man who was determined to build his own personal submarine and pilot it around the world. Spoiler alert: Walt Grace winds up in Tokyo. But not before Mayer takes us on a heartfelt journey with the man. This song is out of place in 2012, but in a surprisingly comforting and welcoming way. In an age of tragic media stories and a suffering world, it’s nice to take a look back at a better time. Mayer outdid himself with this song. And in more ways than one. Everything about it is flawless.
Then we get the drinking song. Which, if Mayer was going to write a ballad about the trouble of alcohol and dealing with life in all its inevitable sums, Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey sounds exactly like what John Mayer would write. We get treated to more harmonica. Cut the lights, pour a whiskey sour, and just listen. Most guys will get it, a lot of girls won’t. And that’s okay. It was intended that way, I think. To be a secret message to guys that sometimes it’s okay to reminisce about that mythical “one that got away” and to drown your sadness in booze. Besides, what is whiskey good for if not forgetting? And what is John Mayer good for if not stating things in ways we can’t exactly wrap our tongues around? In this song, he captures some whispered story we try to bury and brings it out in full light. It’s eloquent, refined, and a class above anything that could ever be considered pop music. In fact, to his credit, pretty much nothing about this album is attune to pop standards. And that’s just about fucking a-okay by me.
We get another ballad love song in A Face To Call Home. However, in this one, we aren’t held down and tortured with a repetitive hook and a flat rhythm. Instead, this song slowly builds in a fuse burning melody that eventually explodes in a meaty climax that seems to be slowly becoming more and more of a Mayer staple. (And yes, that’s a good thing.) Instead of bitching about love and relationships, we are given a story. That goes up and up and practically jumps into our ears at the end. It’s the business as usual Mayer that suddenly showed up to prom in a neon pink suit. And in this one single track, we see all the years and lessons learned that have turned the now mature Mayer into an icon to be followed. At the 2 minute and 56 second mark, Mayer becomes something more than the little boy who watched a girl who was entirely out of his league buzzing like Neon. In the last two minutes of this track, Mayer metamorphosis into a man. The man I described at the start of this article. The quick progression to this point has taken an astonishingly short ten tracks. The album could have easily ended right there and then, but instead Mayer gives us another token reason of why he is one of the most well-rounded singer/songwriter’s active today.
The last track, Born and Raised (Reprise) might sound like a country song. Well, that’s because it is. And it showcases the greatly expanding musical library that Mayer has in his head. A touch back to the previous track Born and Raised, that is suddenly upbeat. Where before Mayer is tip-toeing with denial, or maybe even dealing with the sad ordeal of acceptance, we now see that Mayer has come full circle. He has accepted that life moves on, we all grow up, and hot damn if that’s just about the finest thing he’s ever heard of. His bravery to do a track like this should be rewarded with applause. Because not only was he daring enough to put it out on his album, he did so convincingly and once again we can thank him for coming and be glad he came.
From first track to last twangy guitar strum, this album packs a wallop. It’ll take your breath away, a lot. Sometimes even multiple times a song. Mayer has stepped into a new realm and we are lucky as hell to get to go on this journey with him. We may not have been there to grow with him personally, but through his music (this album especially) he helps us to grow personally through him. Hopefully John Mayer will be around for decades to come, continuing to evolve and presenting us with increasingly detailed and thought provoking work. I for one can’t wait to see what comes next. And I think, for the first time in his life, Mayer is excited about the next chapter too. As he sings in A Face To Call Home, “Maybe I can stay awhile / Maybe I can stay awhile / I’m talking about all of the time / You’ve got a face to call home”. And perhaps that’s what this entire journey has all been about for Mayer. Coming home. Or rather, reestablishing what home means to him. One thing’s for sure, when Mayer finds that ultimate place of comfort, when he finally embraces the quiet calm of the world around him, we, as the listeners, are the benefactors of incredibly well done music. I give Born and Raised an emphatic five out of five stars. It’s courageous, it’s new, it’s fresh and vivid; and for Mayer, it’s something we’ve never seen before. We can only hope that the album ended not with a period, but with a cliff-hanging To Be Continued…