Monday, June 4, 2012

Album Review: "Born and Raised" - John Mayer

Listening to John Mayer's new album, it is difficult not to be reminded of his tumultuous year in 2010, when media and public vitriol was leveled at the singer in heaps over some choice comments he made in a Playboy interview. I do not need to regurgitate what was said here, but I bring it up because the backlash he received over those comments seems to have caused him to take a few steps back in the years since; to self-reflect, as it were, at the man that he was and the man he thought he wanted to become, if he, before then, even knew. The comments made in Playboy are obviously part of the narrative of this record, as are the relationship highs and lows so well-documented in photos and in the celebrity gossip blogosphere engined by that classy lot of journalists, the paparazzi. But these storylines are never so specific as to make Born & Raised any less thematically universal. The album is a great example of an artist suffering (whether self-inflicted or not, it doesn't matter), examining his life in the context of that suffering, and producing something precise, personal, and relatable. Not to mention pretty damn good.

Perhaps where Mayer, who is known in some circles (outside the realm of teenage fangirls) for his blues/rock guitar prowess, proves most successful on Born and Raised is in his ability to dial it down, not just a little bit, but almost completely. The electric guitar licks are subtle throughout the record, with nary a guitar solo to be found. It's made clear that the central focus here is the songwriting, which is some of the best Mayer has ever done. More mature than Room For Squares, more substantial than Battle Studies, and more soulful than any studio album he's ever recorded, Continuum included, Born and Raised is Mayer facing the sometimes harsh realities of growing and growing up, and creating something truly memorable.

Much of the hype that surrounded this album upon release had to do with the singer's adoption of a more country and americana influence, which is certainly present, what with plenty of steel guitar and a plethora of promo pictures of Mayer in a cowboy hat. (An aside: I think once you've donned the cowboy hat, you're officially telling people that you could give a shit less about naysayers anymore, as the hat will surely only intensify any naysayer hatred.) But along with country and americana, this Mayer also resembles the classic rock sound of the 70s. The singer produced the album along with the help of Don Was, the man who was at the helm of the glorious--some would say glorious failure--that was In the Life of Chris Gaines, Garth Brooks' failed attempt to take on an edgy pop/rock alter ego. With Was' help Mayer transitions into this new sound with natural ease. And Was' resume is actually rather impressive. He has worked with a wide array of artists including Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Hootie and the Blowfish, Barenaked Ladies, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Amos Lee, to name only a very few. And his experience shows.

"Queen of California" starts things off breezily, and is catchy as hell. It's reminiscent of his groovier, bluesier work, but right here in song number one is the sweet sound of the pedal steel guitar, signaling to the listener that we may be in for something a little different. Mayer himself is also looking for a fresh start: "Goodbye cold/ goodbye rain/ goodbye sorrow/ goodbye shame." The song contains references to both Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, whose past artistic output seems to have been heavily on Mayer's mind during the recording process. Following the first track is "The Age of Worry," which sounds like an ancient Irish jig, what with it's cascading rhythms and immense singalong potential. One can picture a group of drunks hoisting up their pints and singing loudly in an attempt to defy that pesky, debilitating beast--worry--that can at times get the best of all of us. Thematically, the song is fairly standard but the lyrics do reach poetic heights in several lines ("Don't be scared to walk alone/ don't be scared to like it" and "Dream your dreams but don't pretend/ make friends with what you are").

That brings us to "Shadow Days," the first single released from Born and Raised. It's a song that has Mayer directly addressing his experiences of the last few years. About midway through he sings, "Well it sucks to be honest/ and it hurts to be real," but that is exactly what Mayer is striving for on this album, and this song in particular: authenticity. When he sings "I'm a good man with a good heart" it doesn't come off as boasting but rather as a realization arrived at after some genuine self-reflection. He has indeed said and done some asshole-ish things in the past, but honestly, who can cast the first stone in this regard? "Shadow Days" is also a perfect example of what many songs on the album do so well; that is, address specific moments in Mayer's life while still maintaining their universal appeal. It seems what he wants most is not to redeem himself in the eyes of the public (that's ultimately up to the individual; no amount of "I'm sorry, I've changed" songs is going to change anyone's mind), but for the public, for us as individuals, to actually relate, even identify, with what it is he's saying.

"Speak to Me" is a sparse acoustic number that recalls the type of songs Mayer is most popular for. But even so, on this album that formula somehow sounds different, fresher. He is partly criticizing a music industry that has been bastardized by commercial corporate radio. It's rare, the narrator opines, to hear songs on the radio anymore that inspire because of their trueness to life ("You can tell that something isn't right/ when all your heroes are in black and white"). While criticizing the industry and corporate wheel he's ultimately a part of, however, the singer also recognizes that it simply is what it is ("I'm not that mad about it"), and maybe one day things will change (Mayer certainly does his part with this record). Transitioning from acoustically laid back to soulfully groovy, "Something Like Olivia" recalls the giddy lightness of opener "Queen of California." It's simple yet heartfelt, and a girl named "Olivia" seems like a right-named girl to sing about. It just sort of rolls off the tongue.

At the midpoint of Born and Raised is the title track and the album's best song. And, at least lyrically, it is the best song of Mayer's career. The pace is slow and seeped in genuine sadness, as acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and harmonica work together perfectly to compliment--I will go as far as to say profound--lyrics that touch on themes like the loss of the romanticism of dreams, family, parents divorcing, and, of course, growing up. It's too much to dissect here (I plan on doing a longer write-up about it soon), but suffice it to say that Mayer outdid himself with this one. (EDIT: See my review of the song HERE.)

Tracks seven and eight build up to satisfying refrains at the end of their respective songs. "If I Ever Get Around To Living" has driving percussion and some wonderfully subtle electric guitar work. It has an almost ethereal feel to it and sounds like something you might hear in a Cameron Crowe movie. It builds into a refrain of "When you gonna wise up boy," Mayer here obviously addressing himself. "Love Is A Verb" is probably the song that stands out least on Born and Raised, as it is musically and lyrically simple, but it clocks in at less than three minutes and ends with the admittedly fun refrain of, "So you gotta show, show, show me." He is, of course, talking about love. Also, though they are completely different songs, when I hear Mayer's version I automatically think of this one as well: "Luv Is A Verb" - DC Talk.

The most interesting song on the album is "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967." To say it is the "most interesting" is certainly not to say it's bad or boring. In fact it has grown on me the most since I've been listening to Born and Raised. It's great because it tells the story of a man with a dream (albeit a bit of strange one), and it's a story that people could have varied interpretations of for days. For example: it seems to be a song about the romanticism of dreams on an album that wants to bring dreams back down to reality; and also, what is the meaning of the line "'Cause when you're done with this world/ you know the next is up to you"? It's one of those songs that reveals itself to you listen by listen. "Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey" is another highlight on an album full of them. In it the narrator is at a point in his life where it's the same routine every night: "Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey/ water, water, water, sleep/ Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey/ wake up shake it off and repeat." Harmonica, pedal steel, and nuanced licks of electric guitar provide instrumentation for the lyrics, which contain one of the best verses on the album: "Every night around this town/ my friends and I we treat it like a race/ But when I really start to break it down/ I wouldn't trust a girl who knew about this place." So much about the narrator is revealed in those four short lines.

The second to last track (though it feels more like the closing track, as the real last track has the feel of an epilogue of sorts), called "A Face to Call Home," is about finding true love and, once you do, working to build a home together in this world, attempting to take all the struggles that entails in stride. The narrator carries his lover's face with him wherever he goes, for the memory of her familiar face fuels him, and feels more like home than any building or piece of property. And when you find a girl about whom you can say, "You never look at me/ like I'm a liability/ I bet you think I've never been at all," perhaps you have found one worthy enough to build a life with, indeed. The song crescendos into a beautiful barrage of chiming guitars, ending powerfully with a sound reminiscent of early Coldplay. Truthfully, it would make a great ending to the album as well.

But closing the record is a reprise of the title track, although in melody and emotion they are completely different. Even so, it feels like a very fitting ending in all its hopeful, slow-paced hoedown glory. There is still some of the darkness and somberness that's peppered over most of the songs ("I was born in brighter days," implying things are a little dimmer now), but it ultimately allows the listener to come away from the album on a joyful note. It also drives home the point that Mayer has been trying to get at throughout: he's found peace with who he's been in the past and is ready to embrace whatever the future holds with a better understanding of grace and the benefit of maturity. As an artist and musician, his sound and inspiration on this album reaches back for what was good about the past, even as he sings about some of the most painful parts of his own, while as a person Mayer also seems ready to reach back and embrace the good about the things he was raised on growing up, as perhaps there is more wisdom there than he'd otherwise given credence to. On Born and Raised, by looking both backward and forward at the same time and getting to know the person he's found somewhere in the middle, Mayer seems to be a man who's beginning to work out the pieces of his own redemption. In other words, he's working on becoming a better person. And that is something we can all relate to.

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