BY CELIA ALMEIDA
Who knew introspective tracks musing on the missteps of a rock n’ roll Lothario could be so relatable?
Much has been made about the personal context within which John Mayer’s latest, Born and Raised, was written. The album is his first after two years of keeping a low public profile following controversial interviews in Playboy and Rolling Stone.
Mayer sang about his “stupid mouth” getting him into trouble as early as his debut album, but in the age of Twitter the problem seemed to go from bad to worse, with talk of his public romances and controversial statements often overshadowing the public’s interest in his music. Audiences and critics waited for his next studio album expecting his response to the public fallout; perhaps a humbler, blues-tinged answer to Kanye’s “Runaway”.
The result of two years of solitude and silence – literal silence, as Mayer had to undergo throat surgery for a condition that has since resurged and has forced him to cancel all tour dates supporting this record for the time being – is an apologetic collection of Americana leaning songs with guest appearances from the likes of Graham Nash, David Crosby, Jim Keltner, and Chuck Leavell. Where Mayer’s generation has sometimes been apprehensive to revere him as one of their greatest because of his public persona, it is a testament to his talent that rock n’ roll royalty has embraced him both onstage and in the studio.
The record starts of with “Queen of California”, in which Mayer heads out West in his cowboy hat and sings, “goodbye sorrow, goodbye shame” as he parts with his past embarrassments and searches for wisdom in Neil Young and Joni Mitchell albums.
Mayer waxes poetic about the meaning of his mistakes to varying results in songs like “The Age of Worry” and “If I Ever Get Around to Living”, and some attempts at zeitgeist commentary like “Speak for Me” do come off a bit forced. Nothing on here is as transcendent as “Gravity”, but some songs, like the standout track “Born and Raised” and its Reprise get very close.
On the title track he comes to terms with not only his public struggles, but private ones like the separation of his parents and sings, “One of these days you’ll be born and raised and it takes you on without warning.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom on the record. “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” is a playful story about a man’s epic journey through self-discovery in his basement. It is an example of the album marking not only a musical stylistic change for Mayer, but also an exploration into new songwriting territory where some songs are less obviously personal, though it is clear that Mayer is still often singing about himself.
Even at his most serious, Mayer doesn’t ever forget about the ladies. “Something Like Olivia” is a breezy track about wanting the company of a certain woman but settling for someone less while she’s taken.
The album is John Mayer at his clearest in many ways: the rootsier and more organic sound quality of this set of songs suits him well and has been a long time coming, and he does arrive at some universal truths about the painful trial-and-error process of searching for love as a young person. When Mayer sings, “Give your heart, then change your mind… ‘Cause God knows it’s been done to you and somehow you got through it”, not only do we know he’s been there, but we know we’ve been there too.