John Mayer’s Born and Raised departs from the melancholy-ridden songs redolent of youth, providing a subdued, folksier vibe that reflects the thoughts of an artist going on 35.
Born and Raised by John Mayer. Columbia, 2012.
By Yumi Araki
The thing about John Mayer is that he’s an undeniable guitar god and master lyricist.
Despite his flippant stints with Billboard babes and rather quizzical attempt at posing as a Wild West cowboy on his latest album jacket, the man knows music. Attending Berklee College of Music in Boston for guitar, and later songwriting, Mayer’s musical transformation from pop heartthrob to impressive blues musician is aging well, like cask-stored whiskey. Given the success of his earlier chart-blasting albums and more crafted collaborations with seasoned musicians, you would think that the 34 year old would be at the apex of his game. That’s why the release of his new album, Born and Raised, feels a little disappointing, unexpectedly subdued and complacent, like a rest stop during Mayer’s soul-searching quest.
Given a relatively low-profile album release, Born and Raised comes off as more of a casual homage to country and folk music than another chapter in Mayer’s usually gripping personal manifesto. The album opens with a crisp guitar arpeggio riff, followed by an unmistakably twangy guitar slide from the hallowed canons of country music. “Queen of California” feels like a soundtrack to a slow dosey-doe, evoking the image of a cowboy boot heel slowly tapping on a wooden floor to the beat. The lyrics explore the theme of departure, the “Queen” representing baggage. While the track gets me to sway and tap my own feet, it lacks the energy and lyrical vividness of songs such as “Why Georgia” (Room for Squares, 2001), which opens with a similar guitar riff.
“Why Georgia,” and other songs in Mayer’s formative albums (Room for Squares, 2001; Heavier Things, 2003) set out to convince us that those grappling with adulthood are not alone in feeling intimidated by intimations of inadequacy and fears of facing responsibility. Some of his live albums, like Try! (2005), are crafted with a blues prowess and passion unrivaled by most contemporary singer-songwriters. They provide a cathartic experience for both Mayer and his audience, a emotional experience absent from even the new album’s title track, “Born and Raised,” where Mayer sings of confronting his fleeting youth.
One song on the new album that does manage to capture the spirit of Mayer’s more thoughtful music-making process is “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, 1967,” a jazzy nocturne intro transitions into a playful parody of the folksy—it is like a sentimental sing-along on a family ranch just before sunset. The song hails chasing the American dream despite all odds and doubts. While the tune isn’t complex, its lighthearted, Dixie syncopations are infectious. This song’s antic and ironic salute to ’60s optimism is where Mayer’s departure from his signature sound finally becomes convincing.
Despite the album’s overall halfhearted treatment of genre and themes, it’s a testament to Mayer’s versatility as a recording artist. If nothing else, it is a valuable addition to the musician’s growing line-up of alter egos: pop sensation, blues fiend, and now country and folk strummer. Also, the tracks remain Mayer-esque in their honesty—he isn’t afraid to confess vulnerability or regret. As Mayer croons in “Shadow Days,” “Well it sucks to be honest/And it hurts to be real . . . /And I’m hoping, knowing somehow/My shadow days are over.” Perhaps Born and Raised is a transitional phrase in Mayer’s struggle to grow from a pop star to a more seasoned artist. He still is somewhat reluctant to trade innocence for experience.