Imagine the nostalgia that a grandfather would feel when he sees traces of his own face in his newborn grandson, and you’ll have an impression of the kind of aesthetic nostalgia that permeates John Mayer’s new album, Born and Raised, which somehow manages to feel both very old and very new at once. Mayer’s music delves into a folky past, roving away from his former electric guitar-driven bluesy sound, but in doing so, Mayer himself moves into the future, with lyrics and feeling that come from a far more mature place than his past efforts.
The evolution of a musician’s sound as he or she releases more music is often abhorred by the artist’s fans as being a symptom of “selling out” or something like that, but in Born and Raised’s case, the opposite might be true: I cannot imagine that Mayer’s fans clamored for the sort of music that fills this disc. There are no more noodly electric guitar solos or killer licks. Instead, every song strikes the same folky, sepia chord, with more subtle guitars and Old West instrumentation. This is evident from the very first song, “Queen of California”, which edges along a sentimental railroad track with the same sort of sagebrush calm that continues throughout the rest of the songs, most notably the soft single “Shadow Days”, whose lyrics provide a good representation of the album’s themes.
I must state it plainly: this is a welcome change for John Mayer. I too love the jaw-droppingly catchy riffs and driving rhythms of his past music, but I think I might like these softer, folkier, Counting Crows-esque tunes even better. This is not John Mayer wimping out. This is, if anything, John Mayer becoming more of a man by showing us the music that comes from the quieter, more nostalgic part of his heart (see “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”, which isn’t nearly as rowdy a song as the title would suggest).
But there is a second, deeper shift in Mayer’s music, one that may not be apparent without some close listening. Not just Mayer’s instrumentation but the lyrics as well has matured. Long regarded as one of the cockiest fellows in the music industry, here Mayer seems to have come to terms with that. Against an Old West backdrop, he confronts his own weaknesses and faults, and reflects on the past and future. Songs like the incredibly sentimental and honest title track, a huge departure from anything Mayer’s ever written before, and the enchanting “Something Like Olivia” demonstrate the renewed sincerity in his music. The album’s best track, “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test 1967”, tells the story of a man who sailed off into the wild blue yonder, and is worth quoting at length: “And for once in his life it was quiet / As he learned how to turn the tide / And the sky was aflare when he came up for air / In his homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride.”
Emotional lyrics like these are all over the album, and they cement the authenticity of Mayer’s new sound. He’s packed his bags and ridden out West, finding another dimension in himself and in his music in the process. I make no bones about saying this: I’m perfectly fine if he decides he likes it so much out there, he doesn’t even want to go back. Score: 8.5/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor