Sunday, June 24, 2012

John Mayer grows up

album review

On his new record, the contemplative Born and Raised, John Mayer effectively infuses soft rock, folk,
country, and blues into his songs

Artist: John Mayer
Album: Born and Raised

We first met John Mayer in 2001 when his major label debut album, Room for Squares, earned him both critical and commercial success. Three subsequent albums further showcased his talent and ensured his presence on the airwaves for nearly a decade. But not content with just being known and celebrated for his soulful music, Mayer then decided to make a career out of saying inappropriate things. That, shockingly, didn't go too well. Public contrition (and supposedly a considerable amount of soul searching) followed. Now, the musician is back in form and (wisely) choosing to let his music do the talking through his fifth album, Born and Raised.

His first new release in nearly three years, Born and Raised is a contemplative set that sees the Grammy winner effectively infuse soft rock, folk, country, and blues into his songs. The singer-songwriter has teamed up with producer Don Was to create twelve tracks that revel in their rustic appeal. “Looking for the song that Neil Young hummed, after the gold rush in 1971,” Mayer sings on 'Queen of California', hinting towards the '70s retro sound he is yearning for.

The album is shrouded in an air of introspection, and the gentle musical touches are effective from start to finish. Its deceptively laid back vibe conceals richness and variety, while the lyrics variously lean towards contrite, defensive, and redemptive. “It sucks to be honest, and it hurts to be real,” he confesses on lead single, 'Shadow Days', which deals with overcoming mistakes and moving on. The melodious 'The Age of Worry' dispenses hope and advice; “don't be scared to walk alone, don't be scared to like it,” the song counsels. 'Speak for Me' laments the state of the musical landscape. The title track, 'Born and Raised', sees Mayer harmonise with David Crosby and Graham Nash. And the touching 'Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967' tells the story of a man who “took a homemade, fan-blade, one-man submarine ride” in one of the most different and interesting songs of the album.

Both the musician and the producer admirably showcase restraint on the record; the songs are understated, and the production doesn't overwhelm the material. The album comes off as gentle and sincere, making good use of Mayer's warm vocals, and employing instruments like the guitar, harmonica, and trumpet to layer the record with diverse sonic touches. The vintage, mellow tunes convincingly display growth and elegance, and prove that his new makeover suits him. Somewhat misplaced amidst the efforts at sincerity, though, is a playful come-on directed towards House star Olivia Wilde in the form of 'Something Like Olivia'; albeit musically interesting, the inclusion of the song seems to dispel the image the rest of the record is trying to create.

Still, on the whole, Born and Raised does not disappoint. It is one of those records that aren't weathered with repeated listens; instead, the more you listen to it, the more you see its charm. John Mayer has used these tracks to simultaneously looks at the past and the future, which is why, based on the incidents that gave the singer infamy, there are plenty of chances to read into the songs and connect them to his personal life; that, however, does not do justice to the material, and the songs feel most compelling if they are encountered on their own merit and not under the light of the singer's past activities. Just allow yourself to enjoy the music, and you will discover some of John Mayer's most impressive work on this record. He might have made headlines for saying all the wrong things, but Born and Raised is proof positive that his musical capabilities and talent still have the power to impress, and are, therefore, the only things we should now be concerned with. 

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th June, 2012

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