Columbia Records, 2012
Four and a half stars
|Mayer and guitar-legend B.B. King exchange guitar picks.|
But even with all the evolution and experimentation represented on Born & Raised, most of the record still has that definitive John Mayer sound. Folk music, with its lyrical structure and evocative orchestration, fits Mayer's songwriting sensibilities like a glove, lending songs like "Age of Worry" (another one of the more mainstream offerings) or "Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey" (a perfect night-time driving song, right down to the pervasive, Ryan Adams-esque harmonica solos) with a distinctly timeless quality. The folkiest groove is left to the campfire confessional that is the title track, a deeply moving and mournfully nostalgic song that seems to encompass 30 or 40 years of the genre into five minutes: Crosby and Nash actually make an appearance here, lending their vocals to the rich harmonies that play throughout, while an explosive B3 organ interlude recalls more modern folk masterworks. And the ghost of Dylan never wanders far as Mayer delves further into his past than ever before, marveling at the swift decay of time, revisiting the places and pieces of his life that he has forgotten, and referencing the powerful personal impact his parent's divorce had on him. It's a lyrical masterclass from a guy who has been responsible for some cringe-worthy moments in his time ("Your body is a wonder, I'll use my hands"), and it comes in the middle of a record full of songs that crackle with maturity and heart. It balances the record's dualities: the past with the present and the experimentation, the alt-country, and the folk with Mayer's more traditional tendencies (see songs like "Something Like Olivia," a bluesy, jazz-trio based song that was recorded almost entirely live, or "Love is a Verb" a slow-burn of a ballad that could have fit easily on any of his last three records). In other words, it's the crux, and the album doesn't quite work without it.
Born & Raised is a record full of contradictions: Mayer ditches his pop music background, but still has some hooks up his sleeve; he goes acoustic for most of the songs, but still has some shining displays of guitar brilliance here and there (just in case anyone ever doubted his talent); he moves in a new direction, making a record that is, overall, nothing like any of the four that have come before it, but there are still countless moments that recall his past; and it's probably not his best work, but after about ten listens, I started feeling the temptation to call it just that. Everything collides on the climactic swell of "A Face to Call Home," the album's proper closer. Acoustic strums mesh with a rousing electric guitar line as Mayer layers numerous vocal parts on top of one another: it's a splendid moment, with such melodic and sonic splendor that it begs to be played at maximum volume. It's also the perfect conclusion to one of the two or three best records I've heard all year, an album that is a stellar step forward for one of today's most intriguing and artistically-driven superstars, and a flawless summer-evening soundtrack. I'd love to hear a record where Mayer really leans on his abilities as a guitarist, but if allowing him to expand his songwriting horizons and explore a wider range of influences sounds as good as Born & Raised does throughout, then I'm on board, all the way. He may have had (relatively) humble beginnings (Squares is still a very solid record), but Mayer is making albums today that will be considered classics 30 or 40 years down the road, and I know I'll be listening to this one, not only for the rest of the summer, not only until it lands somewhere in the upper-echelon of my year-end list, but for as long as I continue to adore music the way I do now: I can hardly give higher praise.