Having almost successfully recovered from his disastrous and downright bizarre February 2010 Playboy interview, removing himself from Hollywood’s A- list party circuit and selling his bi- coastal homes L.A. and New York in favour of a self- imposed, frugal lifestyle in Bozeman, Montana, John Mayer has spent the ensuing time eating humble pie; nowhere is this more evident than on his fifth record, Born and Raised, his most focused, mature, honest and fully realised album to date.
On opener ‘Queen of California’, Mayer sets out his stall; this is an album in the vein of the big, era- defining folk albums of the 70’s, such as Neil Young’s Harvest, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James and the debut solo records of Stephen Stills and Paul Simon. Mayer’s subtle finger- picking and references to Neil Young (Looking for the sun that Neil Young sung/ After the gold rush of 1971), Blood on the Tracks– era Bob Dylan (If you see her, say hello) and Joni Mitchell (Joni wrote Blue in her house by the sea/ I gotta believe there’s another color waiting on me) all convey a move towards the confessional, folk song- writing that defined Mayer’s career with 2003 hit ‘Daughters’ but was subsequently sidelined in favour of the audacious blues chops he displayed on 2005’s live album, Try!, and the more restrained, soulful blues playing of 2006’s Continuum– arguably his best record- which earned him a place on Rolling Stone’s New Guitar Gods, with the nickname “Slowhand Jr.”- a favourable nod to that other blues guitarist who crossed over to popular, mainstream audiences.
Throughout Born and Raised, Mayer shows an astute understanding of styles and forms. Like ‘Queen of California’, ‘Something Like Olivia’ uses that most humble and honest of all song forms; 12- bar blues. ‘Something Like Olivia’ finds Mayer attempting to resolve his devil- may- care, man- about- town- urges of old, with his newly found moral order and conduct. This, of course, turns out to be a theme at the heart of the record; that one person’s redemption can only be achieved by progressing past life’s ill- judged choices and by chalking those mistakes down to life experience. Mayer illustrates this best in ‘The Age of Worry’, a simple, AB- form song, which is laden with forceful, Dylan- esque rhetoric (Know your fight is not within/ Yours is with your timing/ Dream your dreams but don’t pretend/ Make friends with what you are).
Flagship single ‘Shadow Days’, the style and sound of which is clearly influenced by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, is certainly the most colourfully arranged and produced songs of the first side. It is, however, the album’s title track, with harmonies courtesy of Graham Nash and David Crosby, which is one of the strongest songs here and might just be one of the best songs that Mayer has yet written. The gorgeous harmonies, Mayer’s soulful vocal inflections and the acceptance and honesty of his lyrics all melt fluidly and strongly to conclude the first side.
The second side finds Mayer embracing slow- tempo numbers that, again, tip the hat to his many song- writing influences. Despite its- frankly- awful title, ‘Love is a Verb’ is exactly the kind of song that Mayer needs; a slow burning, breezy, ‘Wonderful Tonight’- mode Clapton song. This is followed by ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967’, a song, which in its rhymes, its unusual, intriguing, opening saxophone arrangement and narrative- driven lyrics of hope and aspiration owes much to Paul Simon. Darkness reigns over the brooding ‘Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey’, the chorus of which recalls Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’.
After showing restraint and subtlety in his playing throughout the record, Mayer finally lets himself off the leash on ‘A Face to Call Home’ with some of the most operatic playing on the record that, temporarily, shifts away from the Americana sound that dominates Born and Raised, for a delay- laden, stadium- rock outro, reminiscent U2’s The Edge.
The recurring theme of identity and the inevitable dichotomies- born and raised, folk and blues, fame and anonymity, the public self and the private self- that dominate Born and Raised culminate in ‘Born and Raised (Reprise)’, an alternate version of the title track, which, here, is treated as West coast folk ditty that is as enjoyable to hear as it must have been to record.
Despite going “Americana” and producing his strongest set yet, Mayer might be too divisive a figure in contemporary music to appreciated by fans of Neil Young and Ryan Adams; too unfashionable to persuade those music fans that he’s anything other than a Berklee College of Music- educated pretty boy, who is molly- coddled by his major label and who is more famous for his appearances in TMZ, People magazine, US Weekly and many other celeb gossip magazines. On Born and Raised, however, Mayer does do enough to prove that there is substance in his song- writing and guitar playing; that mainstream American radio and television- now more than ever- needs a major label, Billboard Top 100- topping song- writer and performer of Mayer’s talent and substance to enrich and subvert a mainstream that is dominated by vacuous, auto- tuned, shock and awe value, pop- tarts. The John Mayer of Born and Raised might even appreciate this dichotomy.