John Mayer is not a dick.
He’s contemplative, and confident, and smart, and charismatic, and talented, and witty, and candid, and vulnerable, and bookish, and intellectual, and superfluously handsome, and he has cool tattoos.
If that’s a crime, then lock us up and throw away the keys. (And let us be bunkmates in the state pen, so we can pass the next few decades talking about Neil Young and “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” and starting our friendly, egalitarian, not-racist prison gang that everyone’s welcome in. And he’ll give me tips on cool body art, because I only have one tattoo that no one thinks is cool, and maybe we’ll end up getting matching, best friend ink? I donno, we don’t have to decide everything right now. )
Of course, to have a fair discussion on this topic, you have to say that John Mayer had a rough 2010, so John Mayer had a rough 2010.
But who didn’t?
BP spilled oil all over the place, Arizona tried to make it illegal to not be prejudice, Obama said everyone had to go to the doctor, and I carried myself in an undignified manner in my last semester of college, then I got a job that I was pretty bad at that for the first 6 to 24 months, depending on who you ask. So, all in all, 2010 was not a banner year.
But the difference is that we (British Petroleum, the State of Arizona, Barack Obama, and myself) did not then write Born and Raised; John Mayer did that, answering his missteps with his art, writing an album as only someone who is not a dick could.
Musically, Born and Raised is experimentation heading towards reinvention: it’s the equivalent of the Byrds stepping away from psychedelic San Francisco and making Sweethearts of the Rodeo. It’s Mayer’s ode to the sound of Laurel Canyon, nodding to its demigods on the opening track (“Queen of California”), treating the music with reverence, as he always has, regardless of genre.
With Americana in hand, he produces something sonically and lyrically sincere, a stripped-down collection that is his most well rounded to date, the entirety of which he punctuates with the self-investigation and semi-autobiography that’s always been inherent to folk music. It’s a feature Mayer likely needed, and tactfully takes advantage of.
As much I was would like to try, it’s probably not possible to discuss Born and Raised without considering the context of Mayer’s withdrawal from the public eye before recording the album, when Tabloid Mayer, Artist Mayer, and Human Mayer collided. That period has (likely) stamped Mayer ever since, and Born and Raised is his musical response to it—it’s his reaction, or explanation.
Or it’s a man coming to grips with it all.
Really, at the most basic level, what we’re talking about—the majority of what Mayer had to reconcile with—stems from two articles, both in 2010: the now infamous Rolling Stone cover story and Playboy Magazine interview.
To isolate any part of either article will certainly be a check mark in the “dick” column (and as a general rule, white people should just not ever use the “n-word”—sorry, future roomie, you fucked up there), but to isolate any part of either article is also hollow: it cheapens the conversation, when John Mayer has never been cheap in the scope of his projects, the depth of the music, or the spirit of his conversations.
As proof of that, I offer those same articles, which are salient when read in full. I offer Born and Raised, which is lined with earned-wisdom, and finds a person with enough fortitude to say, “Yeah, I lost my way for awhile there.”
I won’t rehash or pull out the highlights of those articles, as they were meant to exist in totality, and should be read that way (and you should go ahead and read them, friend! We won’t mind!); I almost imagine Mayer imagined them in their totality when he agreed to be a subject, and the writers did well by that belief. There’s no enmity on their part, no effort to have negatively shaped public perception. Rather, it was Mayer who represented Mayer in a way that is uniquely Mayer. It was met with mixed results: on the surface, there was something of a hedonist in him—a millennial Lord Henry Wotton—that was jarring or unexpected, especially when juxtaposed with “Daughters” or “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
Still, it was a hedonist with a heart, someone’s whose art has always been born out of passion, but whose talents have brought him elsewhere—somewhere where hedonism is tangible and, frankly, to be expected. Mayer found himself caught between the poles of heart and hedonism, and what he said in print was underpinned with the perspective and contemplation inherent to his core. He showed the spirit that allows him to write songs like “The Age of Worry” or “A Face to Call Home.” He bared that, albeit with his oft-misunderstood combination of wit, humor, and intellect. Stripped of the public relations distance, he said things that real people say, or want to say, or think, or would think, if they let themselves. He was candid, unfiltered, and smart—he spoke honestly, in an apparent attempt to live honestly, thinking out loud about how to exist as a person, in spite of fame and profile and a failed romance with Jennifer Aniston.
In 2010, John Mayer boils down to this: good intentions, bad execution. Like my buddy Ben. (You guys don’t know Ben, but he’s a classic “good intentions, bad execution” guy.) Two years later, though, Born and Raised gets back the execution, displaying the good intentions: if we read the album as his musical response to that time period, then the album gets at ownership, rather than excuse or apology. It’s lined with the sincerity that made people fall in love with him in the first place, rooted in the belief that he’s “a good man with a good heart, [who] had a rough time, had a rough start.”
On Born and Raised, Mayer shows us that “the cover of a Rolling Stone ain’t the cover of a rolling stone” (“Speak for Me”), and he builds the entire collection around what he’s come to know to be true about himself. There’s self-awareness and resonance in his words, folded seamlessly in with the protection of his musical virtuosity. He shows himself as a lyricist (a feature he probably doesn’t get enough credit for), and uses little, imperial scraps of that earned-wisdom with poignancy. Without becoming heavy-handed, they peak out over the course of the album, and establish a still beating heart: “don’t be afraid to walk alone, don’t be afraid to like it”; “make friends with what you are”; “give your heart and change your mind”; “did you know that you could be wrong and swear you’re right?”; “hard times help me see”; “you can tell something isn’t right, when your heroes are in black and white”; “now and then I pace my place, I can’t retrace how I got here”; “I still have dreams, they’re not the same, they don’t fly quite as high as they used to”; “one of these days you’ll be born and raised, and it all comes on without warning”; “maybe it’s all a dream I’m having at 17”; “when you gonna wise up, boy?”; “trying to find the man I never got to be”; “the stage was set, the words were mine, I’m not complaining”; “it’s just a phase, but I still might have a ways to go”; “you’d never know a man could feel so small.”
This self-awareness is written into Born and Raised, which is refreshing, but it doesn’t weigh the album down: it’s present, but not a singular focus. Rather, to traverse 2010 to understand 2012, Born and Raised is the end; it’s the point of finding contentment. Its insights are somewhere between eavesdropping and reading a diary, and masterfully, Mayer captures a man—not an artist, not a celebrity—as he comes out of the proverbial woods.
So yes, John Mayer called Jessica Simpson “sexual napalm” (regrettably a phrase that has never been used to describe me), and he said the “n-word” (which was his intellectualization turning into a foot-in-mouth situation), and he talked about porn (a lot). But when you listen to the music and attempt to understand the man, he genuinely seems built around good intentions. Or, at the very least, his successes, as well as his failures, seem to stem from the part of the brain that allows him to approach music surgically: whatever’s driven him to stardom has forced him to meditate on place and fame and status and what it means to have “good intentions” in the first place.
(Honestly, when I decided to re-review Born and Raised, my singular thought was “John Mayer is not a dick, because a dick could not write Born and Raised.” It was true and funny and a good idea for an article. But I did not anticipate the rabbit hole I would fall down, where I became sincerely invested, and spent the next 72 hours becoming John Mayer’s sworn protector. It was a lot for a Monday, and has led to an emotionally taxing week, but those are the breaks when you’re born with maternal instincts for blues guitarists. On an unrelated note, if Dennis Kasich walked into my apartment right now, I would not recognize him.)
The introductory stanza to Born and Raised (“Queen of California”) is a goodbye—“Goodbye, cold/goodbye, rain/goodbye, sorrow/and goodbye, shame”—that puts to bed the last two years, and steps into something new: it establishes that the album will not be a brooding account of how misunderstood its central figure is. Rather, Born and Raised is a crossover pop success, who happens to be the last mainstream guitar virtuoso, who happens to be taking his turn at rootsy, American music. He puts these abilities and sensibilities in context with his appreciation to the genre’s tradition, and lights the album’s fuse.
“Queen of California” meets my requirement for a great opener to a great album, in that it makes the whole of the record feel like an event. Mayer’s always been good at that, and here, he sets the course for what his take on folk will be: the opener’s initially picked acoustic is met with his signature Stratocaster smoothness and velvet melodies, which he combines with references to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It airs on the sunny side of Americana, with the touch of blues that makes John Mayer who he’s always been, but with cognizance of Gram Parsons or David Crosby. That combination of old and new, of tradition and something unique to Mayer, is the album’s most obvious strength: it’s a step towards folk and Americana, but without completely turning away from being born to plug in, or the ability to write Top 40 hits.
Born and Raised pulls obvious inspiration and influence from other acts, but it’s not John Mayer doing an impression of anyone else, or mimicking something that’s already been done. Rather, he produces his folk album, something that reflects a modern reality: “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” is stripped down, and pulls on the genre’s shorthand, but sets itself on a New York City sidewalk, just before the bars let out. Much of the album walks a similar line, as it sounds inherently timeless, but isn’t steeped in nostalgia. Even the most singer-songwritery tracks take a shot of electric innovation: “The Age of Worry” has building, orchestral drums that sweep across the track and cause it to burst at the seams, making it feel bigger than other shuffling, acoustic ballads. Similarly, “If I Ever Get Around to Living” is born out of harmonies and subdued fingerpicking, but grows into an airy, floating jam band, bordering on the 60’s psychedelic sound that pre-dated Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
Still, Mayer remains spare throughout, letting voice, harmonica, and acoustic guitars shape the atmosphere and ethos of the album: “Speak for Me” is an especially considerate example, as there are opportunities to build more into it, but he doesn’t. He simply lets the lyrics breathe and ring out. After the album’s first run of tracks, “Speak for Me” is where Mayer shifts down, before building back up, helping the roundness of the collection in the way it waxes and wanes.
Opening with gently strummed chords and a harmonica, “Born and Raised” is a song with the unique ability to fire you up and break your heart in the same verses: Mayer’s traditionally smooth, breathy vocals have gravel in them, and are met by soaring backing vocals that, somehow, make it all the more devastating. With the album’s most lasting lyrical takeaways, Mayer employs his voice with uncommon strain and a certain intangible hurt, delivering a standout third verse: “I still got time, I still got faith/I call on both of my brothers/I got a mom, I got a dad/But they do not have each other.” While the song has clear moments of autobiography, it invites a certain catharsis that sustains over the course of many listens. It’s especially poignant in that it is preceded (and juxtaposed) by “Something Like Olivia,” the album’s most fun track, and one of the moments of electricity: the song is catchy in its simplicity, and sounds like it’s been around for a generation. While it’s not quite a country blues (as “A Fool to Love You” is), it’s not Chicago blues, either. It’s something in-between, on an album where he is not John the Ripper as we knew him on Try!. Born and Raised is more Telecaster than Stratocaster, with thinner, understated slides and fills: the notes speak in a different way than the chunky riffs of earlier albums, heard most clearly on the solo of “Shadow Days” (the album’s thesis statement) and the opener to the sweetly sung “Love is a Verb.”
But everything on Born and Raised exists in context to “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” which is a tall-tale and urban legend and seafaring shanty and dream I once had and basically the only thing that matters in the world.
“Walt Grace” is atmospheric and inventive, something unlike anything John Mayer (or anyone else) has produced. It both fits with and is askew from the rest of the album, as it zooms in on the story of the indomitable Walt Grace (no spoilers), who wants to take a “homemade, fan blade, one-man submarine ride.” While grounded totally in reality, it’s somehow a different world, where a basement, library, seashore, open ocean, foreign city, and bar seem totally impossible. Walt Grace is a literary hero that feels feel surreal under the song’s lens, and while the music is calmingly beautiful—there’s an ever-present drummer-boy snare, gently touched keys, distant picking pattern—it’s almost unnoticeable while you’re wrapped in the story of a man shirking convention for the sake of aspiration.
“Walt Grace” is the story of a man feeling compelled to leave it all behind, to start over, to venture out into unknown territory for a reason that’s not entirely clear.
It’s almost like if one of music’s biggest stars up and moved to a ranch in Montana.
Reminds me of a guy I once knew—a guy who is not a dick.
John Mayer is famous, really fucking famous. About as famous as a person can get. But in 2010, we—me, you, and John Mayer—forgot that his fame is merit-based: that he’s famous because he’s a master singer, songwriter, guitar player, musician, storyteller, arranger, and mind.
In 2012, with Born and Raised, he helped us remember that.
He reminded us that we cared about what he did because he writes songs that are compelling, and that we feel ownership of. When returned to that medium, and went back to his natural habitat, he gave us a glimpse of who he was, and thus, who he really is.
Billy is a feature writer and content workhorse, fluent in English. His career highlights include a Twitter favorite from Matt Nathanson, and sitting a few rows behind John Kerry’s hair at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Recently, Billy has played with the idea of getting a dog, but realized that might be too much responsibility. Check out more from Billy on Twitter and at billyrosenbeck.com.