BY MIKE SHULMAN
John Mayer’s fifth studio release, “Born and Raised,” finds him looking back on the last decade with songs drawn from a canvas of early 1970s folk rock. The sounds of Neil Young, the Allman Brothers and Crosby Stills and Nash burst out of the album unapologetically and fully aware of the sound he is creating.
Mayer has been creeping out of the spotlight for the last two years, following a period when he became more famous for his tweets and celebrity girlfriends (and the subsequent retaliation songs) than he was for being what some would call the best rock artist of the last decade. His rise from pop/rock cutie with a guitar to blues/rock powerhouse left him drained and apparently searching for meaning. With “Born and Raised,” he may have found what he was looking for. More country than any of his prior albums, Mayer combines acoustic rhythms with well-timed solos and licks that prove he can still play as good as anyone out there.
He may have moved to Montana to find peace of mind, but Mayer’s opening track finds its way to the west coast. “Queen of California” opens the album with an acoustic groove reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac. “The Age of Worry” begins the album’s theme of introspection that had been absent in Mayer’s recent work. Over jangling guitar, Mayer sings “Don’t be scared to walk alone, don’t be scared to like it.”
The album rolls into the first single, “Shadow Days,” which is Mayer at his best. An opening electric guitar riff, a simple and catchy chorus. Yet it somehow hits the spot lyrically, being both deep but direct. An apology for past transgressions, Mayer tells the listener he is “a good man with a good heart” and it is convincing on such a well-produced track.
“Speak for Me” is a bit of a throwaway track, but contains a potential Taylor Swift connection. Is it a response to her song “Speak Now”? Ms. Swift didn’t return my calls so I do not know how she feels, but it does seem like John is reaching out to her. Finally, “Something like Olivia” showcases the bluesy side of Mayer that has been missing since “Continuum.” Upbeat, filled with organs, electric guitars and backup singers, it breathes life into an album that can feel like it has to be listened to on a dusty road. This song just feels right and has the potential for a solid live performance.
The album’s midpoint introduces us to the title track, an acoustic, harmonica-laced song, featuring backing vocals from David Crosby and Graham Nash. This is a definite Mayer song, but one molded into this album’s folksy theme. Lyrically, the song is one of the album’s strongest, but it falls short of being able to hold its own as radio-worthy single. (This is indicative of the album’s overall commercial flaw: a lack of viable contenders for mainstream media.) On the other hand, the new tone and lack of attention might be the result Mayer is looking for. More of the same on “If I Ever Get Around to Living,” where Mayer sings: “Maybe it’s all a dream I’m having at seventeen, I don’t have tattoos. And very soon, mother will be calling me. Saying, “Come upstairs, you’ve got some work to do.” It’s one of the weaker songs on the album. Though the guitar fills are redeeming, they don’t save this song from the skip button.
“Love is a Verb,” a short and sweet poppy tune, is the best song on the album. An extension of what we heard on his last album “Battle Studies,” those missing the old Mayer might find him hiding on this track, where he sings “You can’t get through love on just a pile of IOUs.” A personal favorite is “Wait Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967.” A quirky story about a submarine inventor who seems to escape his life, the lyrics are fun and coupled well with a simple snare drum and some piano. The song might be a bit out of the box, but Mayer’s familiar voice and the quality of the song make it feel familiar and definitely worth more than a passing listen.
It’s no surprise that musicians tend to have a special relationship with alcohol. “Whisky, Whisky, Whisky” is filled with the regret of nights spent drinking and mornings spent hung-over and alone. More piano and harmonica lead the listener through a familiar tale of boozing and its aftermath. A good song ,but the B-side of this album is a slow march and requires patience to sit through.
Still slow but a bit more optimistic, “A Face to Call Home” includes a full band and moves back in time musically to Mayer’s earlier albums. Despite the familiar sound, the lyrics speak to a future in a house with a companion. The opening line, “I’m an architect of days that haven’t happened yet,” is a fantastic lyric and a hopeful thought in an album that is all about past regrets.
The end of the album is a reprise of “Born and Raised,” which is a bit lazy (album really has eleven tracks), but conceptually cool. Two minutes that pound home the concept of regret, change and finding one’s self.
Overall, this album hit the nail on the head for an artist who needed to reevaluate his purpose and re-establish how he wants to be viewed. Mayer has too much talent to be the focus of TMZ. “Born and Raised” showcases his ability to change genres while not missing a step in his lyrics or guitar playing. A lack of single- worthy songs and a stripped down sound will hurt the album’s overall appeal. However, the writing is strong and Mayer’s guitar plays all of the right notes. 7.5 out of 10.