John Mayer remains a musical contradiction. On the one hand he’s an extraordinary guitarist with talent to spare. Yet on the other, at least from a song writing perspective, it’s as if he’s built a career around writing songs for super models or the next advertisement for Hallmark. So what’s going on?
Born and Raised provides no rejoin to such conundrums. Nor does it assuage my suspicion that on this, his fifth and most humble studio effort, Mayer is nothing more than a Calvin Klein in Neil Young’s clothing.
Opener “Queen of California” is straight out of the Marshall Tucker Band/Outlaws aesthetic. It’s a pleasant, dreamy number, that evokes the spirit of Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s with lines such as “Looking for the sun that Neil Young hung/After the gold rush in 1971”. He even throws in a subtle reference to Joni Mitchell, just so you get the picture he is trying to paint.
“The Age of Worry” begins with some lovely acoustic picking, until a big, extraneous Celtic orchestra comes booming in, effectively ruining what might have otherwise been a quiet and unpretentious journey about overcoming the many hurdles in life. So if you’re ever constipated, put this on, and will it move your bowels in no time.
The southern rock flavoured “Shadow Days” follows, and is an inoffensive mix of melodious self-reflection and the quest for redemption. And while the subject matter itself is universal, the chorus drags it down, most notably when Mayer sings “I’m a good man with a good heart/Had a tough time, got a rough start”. And while I respect the song’s overall sentiment, I can’t help but get these mental images of the cast of Friends all hovering around him in the studio.
On “Speak for Me” Mayer proves he’s a student of Lindsey Buckingham, while “Something Like Olivia” sees well known veterans Jim Keltner and Chuck Leavell play drums and organ respectively. It’s nice enough, but not even these two master musicians can give the kiss of life to what is ostensibly a lacklustre tune about longing to be with a perfect woman already spoken for.
The title track opens with some Harvest era guitar and harmonica, followed by some tasteful lap steel courtesy of Greg Leisz. But it’s the presence of David Crosby and Graham Nash (two names no doubt the majority of Mayer’s fans have probably never heard of) on backing vocals that will likely pique the interest of older lovers of the original California country-rock genre. There’s nothing bad about it per se, but I’m finding it difficult to recall one single memorable moment, and this is after multiple listens. Not so “If I Ever Get Around To living”, which is, for my money, the best song of the album. It’s also the longest. And if ever Mayer gets around to writing a whole record’s worth of tunes this good, I’ll take back all I’ve said. The guitar playing on this is exquisite, in that jazzy laidback JJ Cale kind of way. Mayer’s vocals also have a raspy quality to them, which only adds to the mood.
“Love is a Verb” reveals Mayer’s soulful side, all in just fewer than two and a half minutes, which is probably all the time he needs to seduce the next vapid woman which takes his fancy. Having said that, there’s little going on that will offend the Geneva Convention of rock and roll critics.
The intro to “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” has some very nice trumpet during the first minute or so, but really doesn’t go anywhere. Likewise “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”, which tries its best, though despite some quality playing throughout, is equally uninteresting.
The same applies to “A Face to Call Home”, which is a sincere albeit none descript evocation of a man who has finally discovered true love (who hasn’t). And what can I say about the end track, “Born and Raised (Reprise)”? In terms of authentic country-rock, it’s about as thoroughly convincing as the Milky Bar Kid re-interpreting Muddy Waters.
Born and Raised is in no way a terrible album, far from it. However I do wonder how his many female fans have taken to it, considering that this is probably as close as any of them are ever likely to get in terms of having a meaningful experience. But then Mayer doesn’t actually appear on the cover, so perhaps they never bought it. Not that I care either way. Regardless, I’d say that there are enough redeeming qualities to recommend it, but only just. So thanks John, but if you don’t mind I think I’ll stick with After the Gold Rush if I’m looking for some serious expression. Or perhaps Joni Mitchell’s Blue.