There have always been two John Mayers. There’s John the Musician, the neo-James Taylor of “Daughters” and “No Such Thing,” and the blues-guitar omnivore who can back Jay-Z and cover “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” Then there’s John the Dude, sloshing his TMI all over TMZ, blazing a trail of famous ex-girlfriends, big-upping his supposedly racist johnson in a disastrous 2010 Playboy interview. Usually, Mayer fastidiously cordons off his music from his slash-and-burn public persona. But on his fifth album, he forces them into the same room and demands they work things out.
Mayer is confessional and a little chastened on Born and Raised, sometimes affectingly so. “It sucks to be honest and it hurts to be real,” he sings on “Shadow Days,” about being burned by bad behavior. Mayer, who in the past couple of years gave up Twitter, saw his parents divorce and moved into a house in Montana, says he wants Born and Raised to evoke a drifting cowboy sitting on the open range, strumming his guitar by the fire. And it does, assuming the fire was built with old CSNY and Allman Brothers records. (David Crosby and Graham Nash even add harmonies to “Born and Raised,” an ode to hard-won self-awareness.) On “Queen of California,” Mayer sets the amiably introspective tone for the album: “Looking for the song that Neil Young hummed after the gold rush in 1971,” he sings, pointing his horse to the Laurel Canyon of the mind.
After the Gold Rush actually came out in 1970, but you get the point: This is a record about how hard it is to make arrangements with yourself when you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell. “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” is a Cali-country song about the tolls of sport-boozing; the gentle-rolling “Speak for Me” laments that rock doesn’t produce heroes like it once did: “Now the cover of a Rolling Stone ain’t the cover of a Rolling Stone,” he observes.
The stylistic change-up and unburdening tone make for some of the most convincing music of Mayer’s career. He recorded much of the LP with producer Don Was before he had throat surgery last year, so his pillowy voice has a tug of parched vulnerability. As usual, his playing is restrained and elegant; he’s a singer-songwriter with a session man’s soul, so every breezy solo or sun-dappled acoustic spindle is comfy and luxe like a spun-silk blanket.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a John Mayer record without a sweeping ballad that tries to gather the spirit of the age into a song. The orchestral gusher “Age of Worry” advises us – and, we assume, Mayer as well – to “make friends with what you are.” But the true soul-stoker is “Love Is a Verb,” a “Wonderful Tonight”-like slow dance that will loom over the spring wedding season like a soft-rock Death Star. “When you show me love/I don’t need your words,” he sings with a warm wink, leaving little room for us to guess which verb is the best replacement for talking. It’s one moment where the two Johns meet – kinda sensitive, kinda seamy. One hand on his heart, the other on your thigh, ready to go all the way as only he can.
Listen to ‘Born and Raised’: