It’s safe to say that John Mayer is in the middle of some kind of midlife crisis. His recent personal life aside (which features all manner of public outbursts, including talking about his sex life and more than his fair share of questionably racial comments), he seems to continue to move his musical career laterally instead of forwards. After releasing a handful of poppy albums, Mayer’s career culminated in the one-two punch of TRY! (provided by his blues side project, the John Mayer Trio) and CONTINUUM (his third full-length effort). Indeed, it could be argued that his 2008 live album, WHERE THE LIGHT IS, is the creative peak of the musician’s career thus far; featuring a three-part set that focused on the three main pillars of Mayer’s creative output – his poppier, acoustic side, his Trio set and his full, eight-piece band – the album demonstrated the versatility and range of his incredible talent. There was nothing that the singer-songwriter could not do: his melodies were as impeccable and universally accessible as his guitar playing was endlessly impressive. There seemed to be no limit to his musical prowess.
Then, something happened. Whatever it was that happened to Mayer in his personal life – discussions of his break up with Taylor Swift and various other unimportant-to-his-craft stories furiously circulated – it had a notable impact on his creative output: if WHERE THE LIGHT IS was the peak of his breadth of his musical ambition, BATTLE STUDIES was the sound of the balloon finally popping, a reactionary record that aimed to strip things back to their intimate essence. And to that end, the album was successful, even if the more musically inclined shook their heads and wondered where the incredible soloing, phrasing and blues influence had gone; the album reverted back to Mayer’s early days, when he was merely a heartthrob for mother’s and their daughters alike rather than the musical icon that was heralded as the most promising up-and-comer in the blues genre. But there was very little to be concerned about, in the end; this was a reactionary record, after all, and most reactionary records do not mark a permanent stylistic reversion.
Enter BORN AND RAISED.
Co-produced by Don Was and Mayer himself, BORN AND RAISED does what every good follow-up to a reactionary record does: it shifts the style and tone violently in a different direction. For many aficionados who had their fingers crossed for a return to the bombastic and excellent blues stylings of CONTINUUM, the album will undoubtedly have them scratching their heads rawer than BATTLE STUDIES did – many may even throw in the towel on the man altogether. It seems that instead of reverting back to his former style, Mayer has opted rather to take a jarring (but appropriate) left turn into the territory of folk; and, god forbid, a touch of country. Though we still get fleeting glimpses of the John Mayer that we all once knew and loved – particularly on the restrained but undoubtedly bluesy “Something Like Olivia” and the elegant “Love is a Verb” – and even some of the John Mayer that most found themselves entirely indifferent towards – “Speak For Me” and “If I Ever Get Around to Living” both would have fit nicely alongside the rest of the STUDIES sessions – what we ultimately wind up with is an album that favours acoustics to electrics, harmonica solos to guitar solos and an overall tone of Americana to anything else.
Somewhere in the midst of the first three tracks, it becomes increasingly obvious that this is an entirely different John Mayer to the one that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past decade: countrified melodies, organs and a bigger reliance on pianos than ever before. It’s almost as if, somewhere along the way, Mayer took a leaf out of Matt Bellamy’s book and decided to focus on the arrangements instead of any one instrument, to the (unfortunate) detriment of his incredible skills on the guitar. The result, however, is a refreshingly intimate and powerful listen that melds Mayer’s love of dense, stringed arrangements with his romantic, ballad-based tendencies. And though one laments the loss of one of his six-minute guitar solos that so deftly weaves amongst the progressions, it’s hard to argue with the results: this is one fantastic album, through and through.
It also happens to feature one of the finest tracks that Mayer has committed to record post-CONTINUUM: the brilliantly-titled “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”. A beautiful and tragic story, the song follows the titular Walt Grace as he dies trying to reach the ocean floor with a contraption that he built in his basement. Opening with a haunting trumpet solo over a lightly-picked guitar line that somehow calls to mind both a solitary, undersea adventure and a funeral procession, “Walt Grace” is the poster-child for BORN AND RAISED: a folky, storytelling track that perfectly encapsulates Mayer’s current instrumental and spiritual state-of-mind. It may be Mayer’s greatest lyrical achievement, to boot, shaking him from his romantic comfort zone and pushing him into a narrative perspective that would make the classic folk artists of old nod in approval: “And for once in his life, it was quiet / As he learned how to turn in the tide / And the sky was a flare, when he came up for air / In his homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride”, he croons, seeming all too familiar with the idea of burying one’s self alive and finding life again on the other side, even if it’s only for a moment.
BORN AND RAISED is peppered with other gems, too (such as the song that immediately follows “Walt Grace”, “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”, another earnest folk track that ends with Mayer pulling out a legitimate harmonica solo) and has the added benefit of starting strong and ending stronger: the final song – a reprise of the title track that appears earlier on the album – is one of the few unabashedly country-esque songs on the album, and it’s a refreshing and bold way to close the record.
Fans who miss the John Mayer of his CONTINUUM days may not be particularly happy with his latest outing, but those with an open mind will find a lot to love here. Mayer not be back to what he’s does best, but it turns out that he’s just as effective a folk musician as he is a blues one. And it doesn’t hurt matters that this album conveniently drops just as summer is about to arrive; this may be the best cruising album of the year so far, and it should be in constant circulation in your car for the next few months.
Standout tracks: “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”, “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” and “Something Like Olivia”. (And “Queen of California”. And “A Face to Call Home”. And all of it.)