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Album review: John Mayer's 'Born and Raised'

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Whether he likes it or not, five words have come to define John Mayer for many music fans: “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” the title of the treacly 2001 ode to a lover and her “porcelain skin” and “candy lips.” Also out of his control is the suggestion generated by two other words in recent years, “Dear John,” the Taylor Swift-penned hit that many speculate was about the pair’s brief romance.

Swift’s lyrical description of a man with a “sick need to give love and then take it away” introduced Mayer (at least those who believed “John” to be him) to a legion of tweens who didn’t know Dave Matthews from John Mayer from Jerry Garcia, couldn’t tell the difference between Christopher Cross and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Mayer to many became a man who played “dark twisted games” with a delicate 19-year-old flower.

Simply uttering the words “John Mayer” in mixed company (necessary now due to the release of his sixth studio album, “Born and Raised”) will prompt a range of polarizing opinions. Whether it’s the hits on one of his five platinum studio albums stretching back to “Room for Squares” 11 years ago, his funny, self-aware appearance on “Chappelle’s Show” or his charming (and on at least one occasion, drunken) interactions with Ellen DeGeneres, the gestalt of his rambunctious years has made him lovable and/or lascivious tabloid fodder.

The perception, which he enabled at nearly every step of the way, was that he was a man who moved through women like he did obvious metaphors. Combined, Mayer’s charisma, devil-may-care attitude and many talents have run the risk of canceling each other out. For much of the population, the first thing that comes to mind when his name comes up isn’t “really good guitarist” but any number of celebrity foibles in his past (i.e. Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston …).

But that was then, the songwriter and guitarist tells us over and again on “Born and Raised” and during the media blitz in advance of the record. According to Mayer during his most recent appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” he’s a different man now. He quit Twitter. He retreated to Montana after the corrupting pleasures of the big city did a number on him.

Like William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau before him, Mayer checked himself through peaceful, easy rural isolation — and apparently listened to a lot of Laurel Canyon folk rock. Getting called “twisted” by America’s sweetheart Swift will do that to a man.

The story on “Born and Raised,” produced by Don Was and recorded in New York and Los Angeles, is one as old as the ages. Feeling alienated by the pressures of the city, the Artist retreats to the country, where, cut off from the distractions, he creates in solitude, along the way finding himself, discovering what’s really important, weighing the adventure and corruption of his old life against the quiet meditation of his greener surroundings.

On “Born and Raised,” Mayer has found a cliché as big as the Montana sky, one that contains multitudes of smaller clichés ripe for harvest.

How do we know, for example, that canyon rock is on his mind? Because he specifically mentions Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” in the opening song, “Queen of California,” which sounds like a Grateful Dead cover of an Eagles song. “Joni wrote ‘Blue’ in a house by the sea,” sings Mayer, “I gotta believe there’s another color waiting for me/To set me free.”

Mayer tries to experiment with color here, but as anyone who’s ever vigorously finger-painted knows, combine too many colors and you create a single hue. These lyrical scribbles color the entirety of “Born and Raised” beige. “I’m a good man with a good heart,” he sings on “Shadow Days,” seeming to defend past choices while acknowledging missteps. “Well I ain’t no troublemaker/And I never meant her harm,” he explains before declaring his “shadow days” over.

As the number of first-person pronouns on “Born and Raised” attests (130 by my count), two years away from the city is a lot of “me” time for anyone, let alone a longtime East Coaster. And like any human, so much self-reflection can be self-distorting (see Kaczynski, Ted), can lead an artist to share internal epiphanies that seem unique and powerful but are in actuality basic milestones of life. That Mayer had a personal retreat when he was a wealthy, multiple-Grammy-winning 34-year-old singer and songwriter doesn’t make him unique, other than maybe as a late bloomer.

What he does offer is an expert musicality filled with charm, honesty and melody, and a peaceful, easy instrumental touch recorded by Was. It’s the Eagles as channeled through Poco and America, with the singer’s voice way out front so as to minimize the chance of misinterpretation: “Now and then I pace my place,” he sings on the title track, “I can’t retrace how I got here.” On “If I Ever Get Around to Living,” he sings of a desire for home and reminiscing of teenage evenings spent alone in his room playing guitar.

Those evenings weren’t wasted. Throughout the album, Mayer offers evidence of his guitar prowess, one that no doubt earned him much admiration as a tall, gawky teenager and continues today whenever he lands onstage for a guest spot. As for guest spots on his album, David Crosby and Graham Nash accompany him on the title track. As his stint at the Berklee College of Music proves, it’s clear Mayer can play guitar, and he does it ably throughout “Born and Raised.”

He’s just not a very smart lyricist and has a hard time knowing what word combinations are cheesy and which ones aren’t. “Love Is a Verb” is a virtual remake of those old “Love is ...” comics from the 1970s; Mayer describes the word “love” by what it’s not: a thing, a crutch, an excuse, a pile of IOUs, or (despite Bryan Ferry’s claim to the contrary) a drug.

So the great twist is that love is no longer addictive? Or that it’s no longer, you know, a thing? And if it’s not a thing, how to justify the title and refrain of “Something Like Olivia,” in which Mayer longs for something — not someone, mind you — like the girl of his dreams, and with one little pronoun shift offers a glimpse into his proverbial soul. Quick, get this man something like a girlfriend — or something like a writing partner.

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-- Randall Roberts
Twitter: @liledit

 
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