I’m getting this out of the way now, because it’s true: John Mayer is the greatest singer/songwriter of our generation.
THERE. I said it.
I don’t know if this is really going out on a limb all that much, because it’s pretty obvious to me. What a career! 2001’s Room for Squares, the acoustically prodigious soundtrack to getting older and other stuff; 2003’s Heavier Things, with necessary evil “Daughters” and a bunch of good songs too; 2006’s Continuum, one of my favorite albums ever; 2009’s Battle Studies.
And now, 2012’s Born and Raised. Easily one of my favorites of the year.
“But it’s different!” they say. “Where is the blues??” they ask. “Why is he wearing that weird cowboy hat and living in Montana??!??!?” they persist.
Well, of course it’s different. What artist doesn’t change significantly over the course of his career? Mayer has always had an unreasonably high metabolism for productivity and wicked musical chops, which means he’s always been able to explore different nuances of his sound to great success; the changes are just a bit more pronounced this time around. Stylistically, there are no similarities at all to Jack White’s latest, Blunderbuss, but if you look at the new direction taken and the amount of creative tinkering on Born and Raised, it’s not difficult to compare career trajectories; this is Mayer’s “insanely-talented-guy-venturing-out-from-his-comfort-zone” album. And it’s great.
Maybe Mayer is just restless and bored with the blues/pop/acoustic dynamic he’s known for, or maybe he’s just been genuinely inspired to pursue the neo-’70s western folk sound that defines Born and Raised. Either way, it suits him well, even if the hat doesn’t.
But enough about the hat. Let’s talk about the songs. “Queen of California” is a perfect preview for the rest of the album, and it sounds like a breezy road trip in an old station wagon. “The Age of Worry” is so far detached from anything Mayer has ever done that it’s sure to raise some eyebrows and/or evoke some comparisons to the pseudo-Irish flavor of parts of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. It’s intimately catchy and WILL get stuck in your head.
“Shadow Days” is, of course, the lead single, and if you haven’t heard it by now then you probably just don’t listen to music. It’s rumored to be a “farewell letter” of sorts to Jennifer Aniston (relationship circa 2008/2009), which is interesting, if a little Taylor Swift-ish of him. Dear John, it’s strange to see you on the other side of this equation.
“Something Like Olivia” is Mayer’s “Sixteen Saltines,” in that it’s the only song on the album that is strongly reminiscent of his past work. It’s a bone thrown to his fans that says “hey guys, I’ve still got it; don’t worry,” and it’s one of my personal favorites. Title track “Born and Raised” features David Crosby and Graham Nash, and it has the weight to anchor the album’s retro folk nostalgia and contemplative tone. It also signals the transition to a mellow goldmine for the next five tracks before ending on peppy closer “Born and Raised – Reprise.” “Love is a Verb” is a really nice track, although it’s about as lyrically trite as the title indicates. “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” takes the structure of a classic folk “story song” and is haunting melancholia at its finest. Whether Walt makes it successfully across the ocean, away from the life he’d grown weary of back home, or dies trying is open to interpretation; either outcome resolves a bittersweet story that makes you wonder how much Walt is supposed to reflect Mayer himself.
With most artists, I’d wave off a significant stylistic change as natural career progression, but with Mayer you have to wonder if it’s something more. I keep remembering his monologue in the “Where the Light Is” live version of “Bold as Love,” in which he breaks down every “approach” he’s tried in his super long life (30 years!!!!!!!) and how none of it has made him happy. I can’t help but think that Born and Raised is a byproduct from some New Approach in his quest to find out What’s This Life Thing All About Anyway? I, for one, am interested to see where the Cowboy Hat Approach takes Mayer in the long run, but right now it’s given us Born and Raised, which is really great.
The lyrics are, for the most part, as personal and reflective as always, if set to a different sonic backdrop. The instrumental work is impeccable and the songs are, without exception, beautiful. I’m still trying to figure out how I would rank Born and Raised in the Mayer canon, although it’s a little bit like comparing apples to cowboy hats. For now, I’m really happy with the direction he’s taken; if nothing else at all, it’s proof that he can do anything. If you like your roadtrips flavored with the ghosts of James Taylor, The Band, and Jackson Browne, then Born and Raised is sooooooooo up your alley. If you’re a Mayer fan, odds are you’ll find it pleasing, even if it takes a bit of time to really dig into. Like I said, Born and Raised is one of my favorite albums of the year, and I hope its legacy is strong enough to endure the years to come.
(1) Queen of California
(2) The Age of Worry
(3) Shadow Days
(5) Something Like Olivia
(6) Born and Raised
(9) Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967
(12) Born and Raised – Reprise