Album Review: John Mayer, “Born And Raised” (2012)

I was surprisingly wary when I heard John Mayer was releasing a fifth album last year.  Though I’ve been a fan of his for nearly half of my life, the past two years have been trying; his last album failed to impress me and his media hi-jinks turned me off even more.  Still, the idea of Born and Raised was appealing; it felt very much like an old lover who had broke my heart was returning and asking me to give him another chance, and I just wasn’t sure I was ready to trust him with my heart again.  The first single was decent enough, and soon it was the release day, and I found myself buying the album, despite the small fear inside that it would disappoint.

But somehow, someway, John Mayer completely redeemed himself with one beautiful, brilliant album.

The album’s opener, Queen of California, sets the mood for Mayer’s new musical direction perfectly; the acoustic guitar takes on a country-western vibe, which we haven’t really heard from Mayer before.  Though the song is a nice introduction for the album, it’s not my favorite; the lyrics aren’t really worth noting, and I found the western vibe a little too country for my personal tastes.

Thankfully, things pick up with the second track, Age of Worry.  A few strings are plucked on the guitar by means of an intro, until the song bursts to life with a chorus of “oohs”.  You can tell right from the start that this song will be an “inspirational” number, and the lyrics are accordingly uplifting (“Alive in the age of worry/Smile in the age of worry/Go wild in the age of worry/And sing, ‘Worry, why should I care?’”).  I tend to find songs like these coming off as being condescending or preachy, but with Mayer’s personal history, I feel like he’s speaking from his heart (“Give your heart then change your mind/You’re allowed to do it/’Cause God knows it’s been done to you/And somehow you got through it”); he’s been in the age of worry that he sings of, and his advice is exactly what got him through.

Shadow Days is another song of triumphing over hard times, and was also the album’s first single.  The melody is light and breezy, and sounds a bit like John Mayer-lite– meaning, something you’d expect to hear on an adult contempary station, after the love song dedication show ends.  That’s okay, though; the songwriting is earnest and heartfelt (“I’m a good man/With a good heart/Had a tough time/Had a rough start/But I’ve finally learned to let it go”), and the guitar solo during the bridge is lovely.

Mayer tackles some of his issues with the media in the biographical number, Speak For Me.  The midtempo track is made up of quiet guitar strumming, leaving more emphasis on Mayer’s vocals as he pleads, “Show me something I can be, play a song that I can sing.  Make me feel as I am free; someone, come speak for me”.  Though I don’t usually feel bad for celebrities and their “unfair” portrayals in the spotlight, I do empathize with Mayer in this song.  I remember him once being a man who just wanted to play his guitar, and deep down, I think he still is that man.

A bluesy little number comes up next with Something Like Olivia, which is possibly the only song I don’t completely care for on the album.  The harmonica and drums sound authentic, and I can easily hear Mayer singing this song at a blues club, but I’m just not incredibly fond of the track overall.

The title track also features Mayer playing the harmonica, but the song is less blues, and more mellow rock.  The song is probably one of my favorites on the album, and possibly one of my favorites in Mayer’s career.  Everything works perfectly together musically; the mournful harmonica in the beginning, the bittersweet strumming during the verses, the harmonies in the chorus- all blend together for a lush, beautiful sound.  But, yet again, it’s the lyrics that are the strength.  Mayer’s been consistently good at writing straightforward, relatable songs and that’s apparent here, as he sings of the inevitable pains we all face as we grow up (“I still have dreams, they’re not the same/They don’t fly as high as they used to/…Then all at once it gets hard to take/It gets hard to fake what I won’t be/’Cause one of these days I’ll be born and raised/And it’s such a waste to grow up lonely.”)

The theme of self-reflection continues on with If I Ever Get Around To Living.  The song is pretty sparse musically, relying mostly on the same few guitar chords and simple drumming, though there are more lovely harmonies during the bridges that give the downtempo ballad a bit more emotion.  Mayer’s vocals are honestly some of the best we’ve heard from him on this album, and it’s nice to see how much he’s matured as a singer during the years. However, the focus should be on the lyrics, as Mayer sings about getting more out of life (“When you gonna wise up, boy?/You are hiding in your mind/Working all the time/Trying to make it better than you got it/You been spending all your time/Searching for a sign/That’s never gonna look the way you want it”) Again, he sums up a whole lifetime worth of pondering and introspection in a neatly packaged 5-minute acoustic rock song.

I’ve been waiting for the John Mayer Trio to release another album for years, to no avail, but it looks like the closest thing I’ll get is Love Is A Verb, a slow, blues-inspired ballad.  The simple refrain is perfect (“No, love ain’t a thing/Love is a verb”) and the track easily sounds like something the Trio would’ve put together back in 2006.   Though not as slick as its predecessor, Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskeycould also be classified as something of a blues number.   The title alone suggests a smoky bar, and Mayer paints the picture of a man at the height of his success and what it brought him (“I’m trying to find the man I never got to be/But when I pushed down on the pavement/I found the whole thing so much harder than it seemed”).  Again, I like the bare-bones honesty of the lyrics; the fact that Mayer is openly admitting that he’s gone through a rough time and probably didn’t cope with it the best way.  I suppose so many of these tracks seem so downtrodden, but a tinge of hope runs through the cautiously optimistic lyrics (“It’s just a phase/It’s not forever”) and upbeat melody.

One of the most encouraging songs I’ve ever heard is Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967.   Before hearing the track, the title threw me off completely, and the music threw me off even more; the jaunty melody and drumming sound less like what I acquaint with John Mayer, and more like the Beatles during the Sergeant Pepper era.  Once I overlooked the strange title and surprising tune, I focused in on the lyrics, which quite literally tell the story of Walt Grace, a man who takes up a mission to make his own submarine from scratch and navigate it to Tokyo.  Walt’s story is more than that, though; it’s a personal tale of triumph, of setting out to do the impossible and accomplishing it (“And his wife told his kids he was crazy/And his friends said he’d fail if he tried/But with a will to work hard/And a library card/He took a homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride”).   The song was particularly significant to me last year, as I was on my own personal journey to change my life and move to another continent.  I referred back to Walt Grace’s story so many times, often reminding myself that “when you’re done with this world, you know the rest is up to you.”  The narrative is one of the most unique songs I’ve ever heard and is so beautifully told and performed that the track has easily made it up in my list of favorite songs, ever.

I feel like a lot of people write John Mayer off as a sensitive “love songs” writer, but honestly, he hasn’t written very many straightforward love songs (ignoring Your Body is a Wonderland, of course, which I usually do ignore these days…).  A Face to Call Home is possibly the first true love song in Mayer’s repertoire, and he does it so well that I’d almost be okay if he just became a sensitive “long songs” writer.  Of course, he can’t keep from writing lyrics that are brutally honest, but they’re still incredibly romantic and sweet (“You know my paper heart?/The one I filled with pencil marks?/I think I might have gone and inked you in…/It’s so good you didn’t see/The nervous wreck I used to be/I never thought a man could feel so small/You never look at me like I’m a liability/I bet you’d think I’ve never been at all”).  My boyfriend asked me once which John Mayer song I’d play at our wedding, and I could never think of one, until now.  The bittersweet romance of this song is absolutely perfect, and even though the lyrics borders on being a bit sappy towards the end, I still love it.

The album comes to a close with a shorter, acoustic version of Born and Raised.  The stripped-back production leaves more room for Mayer’s vocals and the harmonica, and the reprise (albeit a bit unnecessary) is a nice way to close the album.

Born and Raised is a great album for many reasons- the songs, melodies, vocals, and lyrics are all stellar.  But more than that, the album is the resurrection of John Mayer’s career, and my faith in him as a musician.  Maybe I’ll never understand his personal life (Katy Perry, John, really?), but that’s not really my business (*insert Kermit sipping tea here*).  As long as he keeps making music like this, I’ll be a happy fan.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. Queen of California
2. The Age of Worry
3. Shadow Days
4. Speak for Me
5. Something Like Olivia
6. Born and Raised
7. If I Ever Get Around To Living
8. Love is a Verb
9. Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967
10. Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey
11. A Face To Call Home
12. Born and Raised (Reprise)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daGcpvxPbCo]
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