Album Review: John Mayer ‘Born and Raised’
“John Mayer is an asshole.”
This is the rather blunt statement I heard from a lady between sets at the Beale Street Music Festival. Strangely this seems to be the popular sentiment leveled on the beleaguered singer-songwriter since his epic implosion within the pages of Playboy and Rolling Stone. He got caught up in the trappings of celebrity and found himself operating without a safety net. He couldn’t stop the machine and it brutally steamrolled him. Instead of rashly entering damage control, John wisely divorced himself from the tabloid limelight and tried to help people forget the caricature of himself he had become.
If that wasn’t enough, we got reports granuloma had set in on his vocal chords and had to be removed. The surgery was reported a success but his fledgling ‘Born & Raised’ tour got canned before it even got the tour bus out of neutral. Now comes the release of his latest album ‘Born & Raised.’
The first taste of this fresh musical experiment came packed in the single “Shadow Days.” On first listen, it seemed Mayer had taken a page out of ex-Jessica Simpson’s playbook, surrendering his allegiance to country music. While the apologetic “Shadow Days” certainly packs a twang, ‘Born & Raised’ is more a marriage of Neil Young and the Allman Brothers with a little Grateful Dead tossed in to keep things interesting.
This folk/alt-country vibe is certainly a departure for John yet seems strangely appropriate give the subject matter. These songs find themselves elbow deep in introspection and dealing with isolation. His self-imposed exile and self-discovery is ever present. The song “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” echoes this sentiment in lines like “its just a phase/its not forever/but I may just have a ways to go.” It also shows up in the title track through thoughts like “I still have dreams/they’re not the same/they don’t fly as high as they used to.” This continued sentiment keeps unfolding as if to say, “I fucked up. Its all my fault, but at my core I’m not that guy. I survived my true quarter-life crisis and I’m a stronger man because of it.”
Mayer also gives us a taste of the traditional love song he’s made his trademark. “Something Like Olivia” harkens back to his ‘Heavier Things’ days with a fresh maturity. Look for it on your radio dial soon.
The album’s most fascinating track is “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967.” It tells the story of a man who builds a submarine to set sail below the sea. It is a tale of exploration, toiling in isolation and fighting the conventional wisdom of the naysayers surrounding him. It perfectly gathers the themes of ‘Born & Raised’ in this peculiar tale of Walt Grace’s redemption.
At the end of the day I think that is what Mayer is trying to get out of ‘Born & Raised.’ He wants to reverse the tide of sentiment calling him an asshole. He certainly seems contrite and weathered by the storm but it will be up to the court of public opinion to see if he’s granted his wish.
The larger question for me is does ‘Born & Raised’ succeed musically. Largely, it does. Mayer has grown as a musician through his personal struggles. He has a deeper sound and a new found maturity that was absent in past works. He’s more relatable in a way the ‘John Mayer scoring with supermodels’ lacked.
‘Born & Raised’ still seems like Mayer searching for a sound. He shed the pop-rock coat that made him famous with the bluesy ‘Try’ and the artistically adventurous ‘Continuum.’ Now we have John Mayer’s entry into Americana. Musically speaking, who is John Mayer? He plays in others sandboxes, bringing along his own shovel and pale. If ‘Born & Raised’ has a failing its that John sounds like a guest on his own record. He pulls it off admirably but the nagging question still remains. Who does he want to be?