Back with a Bang

Back with a Bang

Somewhere between Continuum (2006),the gem that was his third studio album and his fifth,Born and Raised,John Mayer lost his way.

Born and Raised

John Mayer

Columbia,Sony Music,$ 9.99

Rating: ****

Somewhere between Continuum (2006),the gem that was his third studio album and his fifth,Born and Raised,John Mayer lost his way. He lost the bluesy soul he’d carefully peppered his earlier work with and reduced his song-writing to self-pitying laments to ex-lovers like the ones we heard in Battle Studies (2009). It’s not just the music that suffered; Mayer made a mockery of himself in public,living the rockstar life without being any good at it. And then the surgery on his vocal chords put him out of the scene for two years. With this album though,he is back with memorable,hummable and honest songs.

Born and Raised begins with Queen of California,set to a James Taylor-ish vibe. It isn’t exactly the best tune in the album; Mayer tips his hat to singer-songwriters Neil Young and Joni Mitchell but the song serves its purpose by setting an intimate,conversational mood for the rest of the album. The songs are lush with vintage melodies harking back to the ’60s and the ’70s,replete with influences from the acoustic folk scene of the era and occasionally accompanied by piano and the mouth organ. If Continuum contained tales of coming-of-age that were filled with uncertainty,Born and Raised addresses how the last few years were spent wandering,looking for answers in all the wrong places. The second track,Age of Worry,instructs you to “build your heart an army,to defend your innocence,while you do everything wrong.” With Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey,(containing one of the more effective uses of the mouth organ),Mayer is clear about embracing the responsibility of being who he is,and how pretence has only left him on his knees: “Wake up,shake it off and repeat.” The confessional tone is carried forward with Shadow Days: “But you find yourself alone just like you’ve found yourself before,like I found myself in pieces on the hotel floor.” The charm of the song lies in the short but delicate piano-guitar bridge Mayer weaves into it.

Speak for Me is a favourite; a very typical Mayer acoustic song but what is striking is the way Mayer bemoans the state of music today,of how songs on the radio don’t represent him,or succeed in alienating him. The mood is more reflective than plaintive: “You can tell something isn’t right,when your heroes are in black and white.” The stage is now set for the title track. Born and Raised is unmistakably influenced by CSNY,although Mayer doesn’t necessarily capitalise on the harmony sections. It’s a good track to understand what his agenda on this album has been — the music of the ’60s and ’70s that he grew up on,honed his skills with and used to identify himself with. His skill as a blues guitarist aside (skillfully showcased in Love is a Verb),Mayer has the soul of a world-weary poet who is going back to a more honest kind of song-writing,shorn of embellishment and conceit. His compositions follow suit,the arrangements are clean but layered and sometimes inspire such delight such as Walt Grace’s Submarine Test January 1967,a song that is sublime,begging for closed eyes and a montage of memories clicking into place like a Kaleidoscope inside your head. The song is a fable about a man who created a submarine in his basement to escape the world,not unlike Mayer who has buried himself in recreating the nostalgia and music of a simpler time. Is this his best work yet? No,but it’s a good start to being John Mayer,the musician,again.