Born and Raised is a pretty important album, career-wise, for John Mayer. The last few years haven’t been too kind to him. From gracing the cover of Rolling Stone in 2007 with John Frusciante and Derek Trucks as the new Guitar Gods to an almost-career destroying interview in the same magazine three years later, it’s clear to the public eye that John Mayer the celebrity has taken precedence over John Mayer the musician.
He once had it all: backing Jay-Z one night to jamming with Buddy Guy or B.B. King or Eric Clapton on another; forming a successful blues power band (John Mayer Trio); living it up with the ladies during his acoustic coffeehouse heartthrob phase. But he lost it all, and quite publicly, that too. In a whale of personal trouble, Mayer shut himself off from the world and started working on Born and Raised. And as for the inspiration, Mayer seems to have looked all over California, especially the Laurel Canyon folk scene of the late 60s and early 70s. Quite a few American iconic artists make their presence felt on this album, as do legendary American session men like Chuck Leavell (of The Allman Brothers Band), Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz. And that makes the album very interesting indeed.
As we’ve explained, California is all over the album. Aptly enough, the album kicks off with the beautiful country folk song “Queen of California”, a retro Laurel Canyon folk tribute that should be heard around a bonfire with a hip-flask in hand. As Mayer name-drops both Young’s After the Gold Rush (“Lookin’ for the sound of neon, hun/After The Gold Rush of 1971“) and Joni Mitchell’s Blue (“Joni want blue, a house by the sea“), the influences of the iconic songs are clear. Built on a vintage Grateful Dead groove and a classic Neil Young acoustic riff, it channels The Allman Brothers Band in its silky hooks and fills. Mayer’s in top form here, with beautiful vocals and soulful harmonies reminiscent of CSNY in all its glory, accompanied by some beautiful pedal steel playing.
On this album, John talks often of the decisions in his life. “The Age of Worry”, one such song, is a lyrical ode to fortitude. Starting off with some great acoustic picking, it segues into a plush string ornamental gusher, where Mayer’s recent acrimonious past seems to be heavy on his mind. On “Shadow Days”, backed by bristling lead guitar, shimmering piano and pedal steel (in the tone of mellow Southern Rock), Mayer is both confessional and a tad chastened about his past relationships. He admits to living in the vicious cycle of self-delusion with his relationships and paying for it: “It sucks to be honest/And it hurts to be real,” he confesses, going on to insist that, on the brighter side, these experiences have given him self-forgiveness and self-acceptance.
The title track “Born and Raised” is a vintage Mayer blues track, with the tambourine adding in a Dylan flavor and the sharp pedal steel bringing in a rootsy feel. This track has Mayer talking about the passage of time and age, as well as his parents’ divorce, and features none other than Crosby and Nash (!) guesting on backing vocals. Album closer “Born and Raised (Reprise)” is more Laurel Canyon, with a touch of harmonica and a lot of rootsy cheeriness. The harmonica again makes an appearance on the delightful “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”, an acoustic ballad about the wonderful combination of sports and booze.
In fact, the album does well to balance the new Californian influences with dashes of vintage Mayer. “Something like Olivia” is a delightful track that features the legendary Jim Keltner on drums. This gentle soulful song, supposedly about House actress Oilvia Wilde, benefits greatly from the church organ and the peppy spunky groove giving it a a Soul flavor. “If I Ever Get Around To Living”, channeling the Grateful Dead in all its jam band glory, has Mayer reminiscing about his pre-fame 17-year old self playing guitar alone in his room alone (“When you gonna wise up boy?” he asks himself).
Speaking of vintage Mayer, his coffehouse avatar especially makes an appearance on the tracks “Love is a Verb” and “A Face to Call Home”. The former, a bit of a slow-dance-love-stoker built on a simple acoustic guitar arrangement and pleasing resonant piano, has Mayer insisting that that love is something you do, not just a word you say. His quirky lyrics (“You can’t get through love, On just a pile of IOU’s“) only make the song better. This one’s a sure-shot inclusion on the present wedding season playlist. The romantic “A Face to Call Home”, the second last track on the album, is vintage Mayer, and easily more peppier and happier than the rest of the album. The song is capped off by a fully-drawn arrangement which extols the triumph and relief after this rather arduous journey of self-realization and self-awareness.
But the best song on the album is the profound, plaintive “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” , which might even be his best song ever. Here, Mayer spins a tale of a discontent husband/eccentric scientist who undertakes a flight of fancy – across the Pacific – in his homemade underwater machine. The trumpet extends grandness to the song’s dreamy landscape, which is complemented wonderfully by the rolling, almost martial rhythm pattern. But like any truly good song, the rhythm and the melody propel this song forward, accentuating it without intruding on the narrative. More than any other song on the album, this song reminds us that John Mayer the teenage heartthrob is gone; and in his place is a mature and steady songwriter who questions and welcomes life in all its facets and hardships.
John Mayer has definitely matured as a songwriter and as a lyricist. While his understated blues playing is as beautiful as ever, one wishes it had a larger presence. The album has a quite a wonderful range of Californian influences; but at the same time, it has Mayer stamped all over it. Sure, the album will probably alienate his detractors even more, but it will definitely please his fans more than that. Born and Raised may just be his best album yet.
As a special bonus, we’ve made a neat little top five list of our favorite songs on this album, for your easy listening pleasure. Without further ado:
5. If I Ever Get Around To Living
4. Something Like Olivia
3. Shadow Days
2. Queen Of California
1. Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967
Verdict: Born and Raised is arguably Mayer’s best and most mature album till date. Mayer fans, go listen! And non-Mayer fans, this would be a good album to convert you.