Review Summary: i'm headin' out west with my headphones on
The past few years have been rough on John Mayer. Since 2009’s Battle Studies
, there’s been a steady stream of bad publicity flowing his way through a combination of his twitter antics, crass interviews, and string of failed relationships, particularly that infamous dalliance with teenage pop tart Taylor Swift. While it’s fair to say Mayer’s predicament was mostly of his own making, the ensuing backlash was perhaps a tad excessive, leading him to abandon the celebrity lifestyle and hole up in Electric Lady studios to write. Consequently, Born and Raised
is his most introspective, genuine, and honest work to date.
Mayer makes his intentions clear from the get-go, namedropping both Neil Young and Joni Mitchell on silky smooth opener ‘Queen of California’ over a backing of acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and tinkling piano keys. Influences of Americana, country, and folk music are immediately apparent over the first half of the record, Mayer blending them seamlessly with his signature style to create an endearing sonic palette. The reflective ‘Shadow Days’ is an early standout, as is the breezy slice of John’s trademark blues-pop ‘Something Like Olivia’. A welcome addition to the mix on several songs is the harmonica, which lays the melancholy foundation for the album’s centrepiece title track. ‘Born and Raised’ is one of the best songs of Mayer’s career, confronting his own mortality and the fleeting nature of life with magnificent vocal harmonies from folk rock legends David Crosby and Graham Nash.
After the brilliant title track, the overlong ‘If I Ever Get Around to Living’ and downright lazy ‘Love Is a Verb’ threaten to derail the momentum of the record. Thankfully, this proves a mere hiccup as the charming tale of ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test’ gets things back on track, setting up the album’s strongest third. ‘Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey’ marks the return of the harmonica to great effect, paired with a storyline deeply relatable to those of us who have ever sought solace at the bottom of a bottle. ‘Whiskey’ is emblematic of the refreshing candour present all throughout Born and Raised
. Mayer’s lyrical perspective here looks predominantly inward rather than at the world around him; consequently he feels present in his own music in a way that he never quite has before. In the past John the songwriter and John the outspoken public figure have seemed almost like two separate people. Not so here. He seems to have broken down the wall separating his inner Jekyll and Hyde, and his music is reaping all the benefits. This is made possible by the fact that he is a deceptively talented lyricist, in that he says precisely what he means to without pretence or crypticism while simultaneously avoiding fluff and cliché – not an easy thing to do.
Mayer’s touching lyrics combine with gorgeous female backing vocals to make ‘A Face to Call Home’ a late album highlight, topped off by an achingly cathartic guitar solo. It's no secret that John is more than capable as a guitarist; he plays with such feeling here that makes Born and Raised
exceptionally easy on the ears, from the fluent acoustic picking to the tastefully restrained leads and solos. Additionally, he proves handy with both harmonica and keys, successfully weaving all of these textures into a rich aural tapestry. It would be remiss of me to not also mention Greg Leisz’s contribution with both pedal and lap steel. He gives a subtle yet captivating performance which really adds another dimension to several songs here. All of these elements are bound together by the familiar smooth rasp of Mayer’s voice and warm production from Don Was.
While its namesake title track showed Mayer’s pensive side, ‘Born and Raised (Reprise)’ has him embracing the passage of time in a jovial saloon bar jam as he belts out ‘born and raised / locks of brown and streaks of grey / I was brought up in brighter days / it’s good to say / now I’m born and raised’
. It’s short, sweet, and closes out the album in grand style. Make no mistake, Mayer’s fifth studio LP is one of his finest works. It displays a level of maturity and honesty unprecedented among his discography, and the newfound Americana aesthetic really suits him. Sure, he’s hardly reinventing the wheel here. That’s not the point. Mayer is damn good at what he does – playing the guitar and writing great songs – and he is right back near the top of his game.