John Mayer

Born & Raised

Written by: CM on 22/05/2012 14:35:27

Connecticut-born-and-raised singer/songwriter John Mayer may have started out as a teen-pop heartthrob, slinging sugary sweet acoustic jams like "Why Georgia" and "Your Body is a Wonderland" (from his 2001 major label debut album, "Room for Squares") toward the radio airwaves, but right from the beginning, it was clear that Mayer was an artist fighting to emerge. It only took five years for him to morph from his initial teen idol image into a guitar god and a blues-rock superstar, delivering one of the best albums of the past decade with 2006's "Continuum," and making himself the leader of a tight-knit jazz trio (alongside seasoned vets Pino Pallidino and Steve Jordan). In between, he hinted at his move to maturity on the hooky, heartfelt, and criminally underrated "Heavier Things" (the first album I ever bought with my own money), and afterwards, he made a trip to break-up album territory with 2009's "Battle Studies," which blended his blues direction with his pop roots for a maze of deep grooves, infectious hooks, night-time atmospherics, and dizzying guitar solos. Now, Mayer is undergoing another metamorphosis, holding onto the blues, shedding the pop, and moving towards classic folk-rock and alt-country on his long-awaited fifth studio album, "Born & Raised," and the result, while not his best record to date, is another great work from one of mainstream music's most ambitious players.

Mayer is arguably the greatest guitarist of his generation: he dropped out of the renowned Berklee College of Music after two semesters, but that hasn't stopped him from collaborating with (or convincingly borrowing from) such legends as Eric Clapton and B.B. King. When he lets loose on the electric, the results are chilling and mindbending (see the stratospheric and emotional solo he laid down on "Edge of Desire," the key track from "Battle Studies," or his emulation of Jimi Hendrix's "Bold as Love" on "Continuum"), but he doesn't do a whole lot of that here. There are a few solos throughout, but on the whole, "Born & Raised" is a more chilled out, laid back, lyrically driven record. It's also the furthest Mayer has strayed from his roots yet, and I would go as far as to say that there isn't a single outright pop song on the whole disc. First single "Shadow Days" is the most blatantly countrified moment of the entire album, with Mayer's weather-worn vocals and regret-laced lyrics surrounded by a web of instrumentation, from sweeping flourishes of pedal steel to the centerpiece guitar solo, all coming back to a dusky chorus. Elsewhere, "Speak to Me" is an acoustic-based number that recalls his "Room For Squares" sound, but with a distinctly more folk-driven lilt. Both songs find Mayer rebelling against his fame and image, battling the douchebag reputation that has formed around him in the wake of controversial interviews for the likes of Playboy and Rolling Stone. Interestingly enough, those songs are probably the ones with the most mainstream appeal, as the rest of the disc finds Mayer experimenting with every aspect of his music. Opener "Queen of California" sounds like it came straight out of the '70s folk/rock scene (think Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Young, or America), with twangy harmonies and another vintage guitar solo; the shapeshifting sensibility of "If I Ever Get Around to Living" references every era of Mayer's career, recalling, at different moments, the brassy build-up of "Clarity," the funky grooves of "83," and the blues/jazz feel of "Continuum," while still coalescing into something that sounds distinctly new for him; album-highlight "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967" kicks off with a trumpet intro before launching into a storytelling opus, laden with distant harmonies, church-bound organs, and a consistant snare-drum march, that instantly sits among Mayer's finest displays of songwriting to date. Mayer has never been content to make the same album twice, but he's also never been one to write a record full of sound-alike songs, and his experimental drive here makes for one of the most involving, eclectic, and interesting listens that any album this year has offered thus far.

But even with all the evolution and experimentation represented on "Born & Raised," most of the record still has that definitive John Mayer sound. Folk music, with its lyrical structure and evocative orchestration, fits Mayer's songwriting sensibilities like a glove, lending songs like "Age of Worry" (another one of the more mainstream offerings) or "Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey" (a perfect night-time driving song, right down to the pervasive, Ryan Adams-esque harmonica solos) with a distinctly timeless quality. The folkiest groove is left to the campfire confessional that is the title track, a deeply moving and mournfully nostalgic song that seems to encompass 30 or 40 years of the genre into five minutes: Crosby and Nash actually make an appearance here, lending their vocals to the rich harmonies that play throughout, while an explosive B3 organ interlude recalls more modern folk masterworks. And the ghost of Dylan never wanders far as Mayer delves further into his past than ever before, marveling at the swift decay of time, revisiting the places and pieces of his life that he has forgotten, and referencing the powerful personal impact his parent's divorce had on him. It's a lyrical masterclass from a guy who has been responsible for some cringe-worthy moments in his time ("Your body is a wonder, I'll use my hands"), and it comes in the middle of a record full of songs that crackle with maturity and heart. It balances the record's dualities: the past with the present and the experimentation, the alt-country, and the folk with Mayer's more traditional tendencies (see songs like "Something Like Olivia," a bluesy, jazz-trio based song that was recorded almost entirely live, or "Love is a Verb" a slow-burn of a ballad that could have fit easily on any of his last three records). In other words, it's the crux, and the album doesn't quite work without it.

"Born & Raised" is a record full of contradictions: Mayer ditches his pop music background, but still has some hooks up his sleeve; he goes acoustic for most of the songs, but still has some shining displays of guitar brilliance here and there (just in case anyone ever doubted his talent); he moves in a new direction, making a record that is, overall, nothing like any of the four that have come before it, but there are still countless moments that recall his past; and it's probably not his best work, but after about ten listens, I started feeling the temptation to call it just that. Everything collides on the climactic swell of "A Face to Call Home," the album's proper closer. Acoustic strums mesh with a rousing electric guitar line as Mayer layers numerous vocal parts on top of one another: it's a splendid moment, with such melodic and sonic splendor that it begs to be played at maximum volume. It's also the perfect conclusion to one of the two or three best records I've heard all year, an album that is a stellar step forward for one of today's most intriguing and artistically-driven superstars, and a flawless summer-evening soundtrack. I'd love to hear a record where Mayer really leans on his abilities as a guitarist, but if allowing him to expand his songwriting horizons and explore a wider range of influences sounds as good as "Born & Raised" does throughout, then I'm on board, all the way. He may have had (relatively) humble beginnings ("Squares" is still a very solid record), but Mayer is making albums today that will be considered classics 30 or 40 years down the road, and I know I'll be listening to this one, not only for the rest of the summer, not only until it lands somewhere in the upper-echelon of my year-end list, but for as long as I continue to adore music the way I do now: I can hardly give higher praise.


Download: "Born & Raised," "A Face to Call Home," "Walt Grace's Submarine Test"
For the Fans Of: Older John Mayer, Ryan Adams, "Sea Change"-era Beck, '70s folk rock

Release Date 22.05.12
Columbia Records

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